GUEST ESSAY: Reading Inside God's Brain

Photo by Michael Spadafina for MAX Video Productions, Inc.
All Rights Reserved. Reproduced with permission.

And the day has finally come! Today is the official publication date of my latest book, More Than Allegory. This means that if you purchase the eBook/Kindle edition now, you get instant gratification, since it will be downloaded immediately. To celebrate this special occasion, only a special blog post will do. And a very special one this is: here is the full introduction of the book, generously contributed by Prof. Jeffrey J. Kripal.

Reading Inside God’s Brain
By Jeffrey J. Kripal

I was so delighted when I found Bernardo Kastrup’s books. Actually, I didn’t find them. A mutual colleague working in Paris on medieval Christianity, Troy Tice, read us both and encouraged me to read Bernardo. He thought our books somehow spoke to one another, and that I would appreciate Bernardo’s books. Troy could not have been more right. I read all five of Bernardo’s previous books within a few weeks. Just gobbled them up.

I have thought about why I did this. I seldom read this many books by a single author. Indeed, at mid-life, I barely have time or energy to read at all. But this was different. I just dropped everything and read, and read, and read. Why? What did this author’s words awaken in me? What glowing ember did he spark back to life in this exhausted middle-aged professor?

Part of my enthusiasm was a double function of Bernardo’s philosophical precision and contemporary relevance. Obviously, here was a man who could think, but who could also speak to the digital age on its own terms and against its own obsessions and naïve uses of computer metaphors for understanding consciousness (more on that in a moment). Part of my pleasure was also a function of the fact that the author is an unapologetic idealist, that is, someone who is convinced that mind or consciousness is the fundamental nature of reality. I was very familiar with this position, but I had never actually met an idealist. They are terribly rare these days, at least in the academic circles in which I move.

Oh, I had read plenty of idealists within my own historical area of research, and Bernardo sounds a lot like the comparative mystical literature to which I have given my life—except that, unlike my historical sources, he answers my e-mails. There is Meister Eckhart, the great Dominican professor and philosopher whose sermons on the always-happening incarnation of the Word in the individual soul and the Now of eternity read like medieval versions of the books of Bernardo Kastrup (or Eckhart Tolle). But Meister Eckhart died almost seven hundred years ago. There is Ramana Maharshi, the great South Indian Hindu mystic of the immortal Self, or what I like to call the Same in us all. But he left us over sixty years ago. Much closer culturally (and digitally), there is Philip K. Dick, the great American science fiction writer who realized through an encounter with the Logos or Cosmic Mind that “reality is a giant brain” that appears to work like a binary computer code network [1]. But he died over thirty years ago.

Dick is worth dwelling on for a moment here, as his weird thought eerily reflects the more precise and calmer books of Bernardo Kastrup. Both certainly share a digital or computer-based model of intellectual cognition. Both also understand that consciousness is not intellectual cognition. Here is a typical passage from Dick’s Exegesis, the 8,000 page private journal that Dick scrawled in the last eight years of his life after getting energetically zapped in the winter of 1974 by a cosmic Mind that he came to call “VALIS,” for Vast Active Living Intelligence System:
All that I could fathom was that the conventional picture that we normally get—and seem to share—is not in fact what is there; what is there is not even in time or space, nor is causation involved. There seems to be a mind and we are in it . . . . “We are all but cells in a colossal mad brain that both makes and perceives reality”—something like that, the main thrust being that there is some relationship between the creating of reality and perceiving of it . . . the percipient is cosmogenitor [literally, “creator of the universe”], or conversely, the cosmogenitor wound up as unwilling percipient of its own creation [2].
You will see, in due time, just how close Dick’s Valis is to the idealist vision worked out in the following pages. In Bernardo’s system, the conventional picture of material reality that we assume to be the case is simply false. It’s an extremely elaborate hoax. More accurately, this material world can be thought of as a kind of dream in which God incarnates through sexual reproduction and evolutionary biology in order to reflect back on itself and come to know itself inside the dream. We are all living in God’s brain. More on that in a moment, too.

So there was Bernardo’s philosophical precision and contemporary relevance, and there was the uncanny way that his words resonate with the comparative mystical literatures I know and love. But there was also something more that drew me to these books, and to this book in particular: the fact that Bernardo Kastrup emerged from the professional fields of physics, mathematics, and computer science and is a successful computer engineer in the corporate world. I confess that I was so pleased by this because I have long found the pretensions of the Artificial Intelligence world to be patently stupid. That’s a bit inappropriate, and it is certainly crabby, but it is nonetheless honest and, I think, quite accurate.

Here is why. The AI community has long been laboring under what Bernardo calls the deprived myth of materialism. This very practical, very common consensual delusion states that mind or consciousness is an emergent product of material processes, and that, in the end, all there is is matter, that is, little tiny dead things bouncing or waving around in empty space in perfectly random and mechanical ways. If this base axiom were true, of course, one could well expect sufficiently sophisticated computer chips to become conscious. That makes perfect sense. The problem is that such a claim is not an established fact but a metaphysical interpretation of the scientific evidence. Moreover, and most importantly, the same materialistic model continues to fail us, and spectacularly so, when it comes to the “hard problem” of consciousness. This utter failure suggests that the materialist paradigm is not up to the task, is not sufficient to the question. We don’t have the slightest bit of evidence that matter produces consciousness, nor do we even have a clue how this might work. Probably because it doesn’t.

Indeed, if Bernardo Kastrup and the idealist mystical literatures of the world are pointing us in the right direction—and I think they are—the materialist hypothesis is the exact opposite of the truth. It is fantastically wrong. Mind does not emerge as a fragile and temporary product of matter. Matter emerges as a fragile and temporary product of what Aldous Huxley famously called “mind-at-large” and its own mathematical structures and symmetrical beauty. Or, if you prefer, what we so pathetically call “mind” and “matter” emerge from some deeper superstructure or symmetry that is at once mental and material, at once mind and math—a kind of Möbius strip of Material Mind or Mental Matter, then.

We do not need to get into the philosophical arguments here (Bernardo does this for us in his six books, including now this one). It is enough to point out that the AI scene is a perfect example of how materialist assumptions and the computer modeling of mind can lead us astray, and why philosophical training and a profound understanding of comparative mystical literature are both crucial to any real grasp of the nature of consciousness—scientific, philosophical, or otherwise. I will just say it: any future, truly adequate philosophy of mind or science of consciousness will have to go through the study of religion, and in particular the comparative study of mystical literature.

This, of course, is exactly what Bernardo is doing here. He is thinking comparatively through the idealisms and nondualisms of Advaita Vedanta, Mind-Only Buddhism, mystical forms of Christianity, and a select number of creation myths, which he reads not as descriptions of some past creation event but as “icons of the now,” that is, as scripts of consciousness itself. He understands perfectly well that as long as philosophers and scientists do not engage these literatures seriously and respectfully, as full and equal partners in the question, there will be no adequate understanding of mind, which is to say: there will be no adequate understanding of us or the universe in which we find ourselves as intimate and bizarrely successful knowing expressions.

Why do we know so much? Why does math work so well? Because we participate in and are expressions of the deepest structures of reality. Because we are that universe and those mathematical structures.

Bernardo understands all of this. Accordingly, he treats the mystical literatures with a seriousness and a thoughtfulness that is extremely rare in the technological fields. He takes comparative mystical literature as seriously as mathematics. He does not confuse the two realms of human knowing. He does not turn to one to establish the other. But he puts them into deep conversation and emerges on the other side with a most extraordinary story or “myth” of who we are and why we are here.

This is where his idealist mysticism morphs into a contemporary or emergent mythology. This is where mind expresses itself, as in a dream, through a narrative or story. And this is where we, as a culture now, always stumble. Entranced by the technological successes of science and engineering, we have come to think of reality as composed of invisible numbers. Everything real is numerical. Anything worth knowing can be measured. Anything not worth knowing cannot be measured. The only real form of knowledge is mathematical or scientific knowledge. Such is the claim, anyway. It’s more than a claim. As I write this, the education minister of Japan is issuing a decree to “abolish” all of the social science and humanities programs of the Japanese universities. Of the 60 national universities, 26 have agreed to do so in some measure [3].

What Bernardo shows us, as a computer engineer no less, is that this materialist paradigm that wants to reduce everything to practical numbers is a half-truth and, if taken as the whole truth, a profound mistake with morally and existentially awful consequences. His message is not simply a negative or polemical one, though. He also has a powerfully positive message. He wants to show us that the fundamental nature of reality expresses itself not just through math but also through myth, which is to say: through symbol and story. Reality is not just made of numbers, it turns out. It is also made of words and narratives. We are not just living in a gigantic machine. We are also living in a whirl of stories and dreams.

It’s not “just a story,” either, as the story always tells us something about the story-teller, just as the dream always tells us something about the dreamer. The project then becomes not simply one of measurement, but also one of meaning. The question becomes not “How can we measure or prove the dream?” but “What is the dream trying to tell us?” We are not after explanation here. We are after understanding, wisdom, gnosis.

The same wisdom leads to another question. “Do we like the story we are dreaming in now? Does this dream lead to human flourishing and long-term sustainability? Or to yet more intercultural violence and existential depression? Why are we fighting over our dreams and myths? And why do we deny the dreamer?” These are difficult questions, but there is a shimmering silver lining here. After all, if we are dreaming our own stories, we can always dream others. We can tell new stories. We can develop new myths, perhaps even myths that point back to the myth-maker. We do not have to keep living in stories that have long ago spent their shelf lives. We do not have to be so naïve.

Toward such ends, Bernardo tells us a story. He weaves a modern myth whose message goes something like this. We are embodied forms of cosmic mind, split off “alters” in some vast multiple-personality order. These alters have entered God’s dream through sexual reproduction and evolutionary biology (note that eros becomes the energy and portal of divine incarnation here) in order to wake up within the dream, look around the physical universe as the interior of God’s brain, and reflect on our own cosmic nature within this same neural galactic network. Here is how he summarizes it: “Put in another way, the universe is the scan of God’s brain; except that you don’t need the scanner: you’re already inside God’s brain so all you have to do is to look around. Your perceptions of the sun, rainbows, thunderstorms, etc., are as inaccessible to God as the patterns of firing neurons in your brain—with all their beauty and complexity—are inaccessible to you in any direct way.”

We are the universe becoming self-aware. We know what God does not know. In the symbolic and mythical terms of Bernardo’s Cologne Cathedral realization, we are all Christs, crucified on the cross of space and time: “we are all hanging from the self-conceptualized cross of space, time, confinement and impermanence. His divine nature is our true nature as timeless mind taking particular, seemingly limited perspectives within its own dream. That Christ is both God and the Son of God born into God’s creation is a hardly disguised way to express this symbolically.”

Obviously, the present book is not simply an idealist tract, an abstract philosophical exercise for the curious. It is a piece of profound story-telling based on the author’s own scientific and technical training, his own mystical Aha!, and his own subsequent philosophical conclusions. It is an exploration of how cosmic consciousness projects itself into narrative forms, into story, or what we have come to call “myth,” and then wakes up out of that same story or myth to know itself not as other but as Self.

Myth for Bernardo, of course, is not some falsehood or superstitious embarrassment, something we can easily leave behind. But neither is it some literal truth or map of history. Rather, myth is “symbolic.” It points. It evokes. It reminds and remembers. But it never quite speaks literally, and for a simple reason: that of which and from which it speaks cannot be captured in language, in number, or by any other act of intellectual cognition. It is simply beyond, or before, all of this. Symbols speak of and out of consciousness, but never literally. A myth here is a story that recalls a mystical experience of transcendence. At any point, it may shock, trip or “flip” the listener-reader into a similar awakening through an “involuntary shift in cognitive perspective.” Here is Bernardo: “the full realization of transcendence is a kind of quantum leap: it happens spontaneously, suddenly, in one swift movement without any apparent cause. It’s a kind of grace.” As such, the myth teaches us nothing new. It simply causes us to remember who we really and already are.

Do not kid yourself. This is no ordinary book. It is a tangle or reflexive loop in the brain of God. To invoke an image from Bernardo’s earlier book, Why Materialism Is Baloney, it is a whirlpool in the mercurial Ocean of Mind that, at any point, might suck itself into the same infinite and immortal waters. It is certainly not a book to provide your already overloaded life with yet more information or mere data. It is not about information at all. It is about the knower of any and all information. Read on, then, inside God’s brain, but be careful. You just might wake up God.

Jeffrey J. Kripal
J. Newton Rayzor Professor of Religion
Rice University
Houston, Texas

[1] Pamela Jackson and Jonathan Lethem, eds, The Exegesis of Philip K. Dick, Erik Davis, annotation editor (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2011), 588.
[2] Ibid., 717-8.

Copyright © 2015 by Jeffrey J. Kripal. All rights reserved. Reproduced with permission.

Conquering the fear of oblivion (in 15 minutes)

Photo by Bernardo Kastrup of a statue by Hildegard Bienen,
hereby released into the public domain.

Most people fear death. And amongst those, most do so because death seems to entail oblivion, the end of everything we are. In this brief essay, I want to help you follow your own direct experience to realize that, whatever death may be, it isn't the end of you; not even of a part of you. This realization, in my view, is fairly simple to achieve and I personally don't include it in my list of critical existential questions. But our mainstream cultural narrative has created a false monster here that distracts most people from the real questions. So let me try to make a contribution towards changing this distorted state of affairs. What follows requires no spiritual background, belief, knowledge or skill; indeed, it doesn't require anything other than sincerity and attentive introspection for about 15 minutes. It focuses solely on your direct experience of your own being, without addressing thought-oriented philosophical questions. For the latter, I recommend Part III of my latest book More Than Allegory, wherein a series of dialogues addresses all the relevant points in a coherent, logical manner. So my proposal is this: as you read what follows below, park your thoughts for a few minutes. Only thereafter, go to More Than Allegory so to give yourself intellectual permission to embrace the direct realization you are about to have.

Available now!

Try to read what follows in a quiet place, without distractions like people walking or chatting around you. No need for any special preparation, just try to remain undisturbed for a few minutes. Allow yourself to focus inward, on your own inner experience, as opposed to external stimuli. Once you are ready, let's start.

Have you noticed that you experience yourself to be the same being since as early as you can remember? My first memory is a brief flash of my first birthday. I was sitting on a bed surrounded by colorful toys. I still remember the slight apprehension I had about a huge green elephant at the edge of the bed. In my experience, that one-year-old toddler was me. Yet, nothing about him has remained the same: not a single atom of his body is likely to have remained in mine since then. His thoughts, fears and desires have nothing to do with mine today. His appearance has surely changed completely. The pattern of his genes may have remained largely the same, but that doesn't explain why I still identify myself with him. After all, people with a twin sibling don't feel that they are their sibling, do they? So you see, there's nothing one can pin down about that one-year-old toddler that could explain this continuing sense of identity. Yet, I have a crystal-clear, unambiguous sense that he indeed was me.

If you search your own memories and feelings, you will notice the same. There is nothing you can pin down about the infant, the child, the teenager or the young adult you once were that has remained intact in you today. Everything about them has changed: their bodies, appearance, feelings, dreams, thoughts, opinions, everything. Yet, you viscerally believe, even know, that they were you. If you now inquire a little deeper within yourself, you will notice that the only thing that has remained intact is the felt sense of "I" behind them all, which is still the same felt sense of "I" you experience today. Make a little pause right now and confirm this for yourself. Don't look for anything you can point at, or give words to, in order to pin down this felt sense of "I." You can only feel it, not define it, for it is that which does all the defining. Can you see how that sense, and that sense alone, is the real you?

This "I" has never left and has never changed throughout your life, although everything else did. This "I" is the only constant and it can't, thus, be explained in terms of anything else, for everything else did change. Clearly, the real you isn't your body, thoughts, opinions, emotions, etc. The real you is this constant "I" that has witnessed the body, thoughts, opinions, emotions, etc., as they changed throughout your life. Don't let thoughts creep in and make you lose touch with our line of inquiry here; keep your attention on your own felt sense of being for now.

What you feel yourself to be is outside time, in that it doesn't change. It's untouchable. It didn't grow. It didn't mature. It didn't age. It's now precisely what it was when you were one year old. As far as your felt sense of being informs you, that's the real you. You are this unchanging "I" behind each and every moment of your life; the quiet witness of them all. Everything else has taken place within this "I" as its experiences. Your bodily sensations, perceptions, thoughts, emotions, your varying self-images, etc., have all come into existence within what you are. As experiences, where else could they have arisen? What is your body but a set of experiences witnessed within the space of your subjectivity?

These experiences provide a mirror to the witness that you are. Life and world are a symbolic mirror for that which experiences them (I explain this philosophically, and at length, in More Than Allegory). The problem is that, at some point before puberty, you began to look at some of the images in this mirror and say: "That's me!" You began to point at these experiences and think that you are them. In a thought-dominated culture such as our own, conceived identity usurped your felt identity. The result is entirely equivalent to a person staring into a mirror and proclaiming herself to be an image in the mirror. But if I broke the mirror, the witness of the images would remain intact, without a scratch, wouldn't she? I can't hurt or kill a person simply by breaking the mirror she is looking at.

"Melting mirror," photo by Bernardo Kastrup, hereby released into the public domain.

Death is the melting away of the mirror. Yet you are not, and have never been, an image in the mirror. That you think you are is just that: a thought. When the mirror dissolves, you remain intact. Nothing about you goes away or is lost.

Human beings are the only animals that know the mirror will eventually dissolve. And because we, absurdly, think that we are an image in the mirror, we derive great anxiety from this knowledge. As death approaches, the mirror begins to crumple and crack. Staring in horror at the increasingly distorted, mangled images in it, we think we are losing ourselves bit by bit. We think we are vanishing. But again, we are the ones looking at the mirror, not an image in it. Amnesic of this fact, we grasp at illusions and try to hold 'ourselves' together. Naturally, this is futile. We go nowhere after the mirror vanishes. We remain right where we were all along, being exactly what we have been all along.

Anxiety about oblivion vanishes if this is truly understood. We know then that the mirror has ever only been a folded-in configuration of ourselves, meant to allow us to see ourselves in some way, which eventually unfolds so we can again rest in pure being. The truth of the matter is that we are all condemned to the vertigo of eternity.

The timeless numinosity of death

'The Source of All Life,' by Selene's Art. Reproduced with permission.

Last week we lost the author of much of the soundtrack of my childhood: Prince, the musician. I hadn't thought of Prince in years; he'd just dropped out of my inner world, except for the very occasional song played on my car radio. In those rare moments, his songs would  immediately bring back memories of my early years; yet, not the image of Prince himself. The artist was just a faded figure in my mind, who I assumed to be an old and grumpy man by now, enjoying retirement somewhere in Florida.

However, upon hearing the news of his passing, I noticed something that had evaded my reflections up until that moment: the strange numinosity that death invests people and their work with. Prince was no longer that old-fashioned, trite, grumpy old man I imagined him to have become. No, no: now he was a mythical figure I'd had the unfathomable honor to share the world with.

How the hell did this sudden change happen? How could the mere passing of a man lead to this complete reversal in how I experience his memory and work? Listening to 'Kiss' was banal until a few days ago, but now it almost brings me to tears. How? Why?! 'Kiss' still has the same notes and even the scratches on my 1986 record haven't changed.

Death somehow instantly changes the way we look upon characters and their ideas. It removes them from the field of the ordinary, placing them on the altar of timelessness instead. Ideas that might have been seen as trivial or shallow become invested with some form of mysterious higher meaning and depth. Those we might have considered struggling and flawed human beings like ourselves, acquire a messianic aura; something more-than-just-human. While you and I, mere mortals, need to use the toilet every day and are beset by fear and confusion, the dead aren't. It's almost as if death, from the point of view of the living, were some kind of cosmic initiation that retroactively invested people and their ideas with more respectability.

It was funny to catch myself falling for this kind of psychological trick, so I decided to expand the exercise. Do I have any reason to think that, say, Nisargadatta Maharaj had superior or more complete introspective insights than, say, Adyashanti? Coming to think about it, not really. If anything, Adyashanti seems much more capable to articulate his insights with clarity and consistency. But Nisargadatta died when I was six, so he now has the numinous aura of timelessness. Many will even put his picture on an altar and pray to him under candlelight. Meanwhile, Adyashanti is just that guy running around the Bay Area as you read this. If I came across him in a supermarket, I'd probably just say 'hi' and continue on with my business.

Another example: my favorite physicist, Richard Feynman, became a mythical hero of mine when (by?) dying just at the time I was discovering his work. In contrast, equally significant Nobel Prize Laureate Carlo Rubbia was just my boss'es boss'es former boss at CERN; a figure to be slightly feared if you happened to bump against him in the cafeteria, but otherwise just an ordinary man.

A final example: I have a strong tendency to put Carl Jung on a pedestal, something I am entirely unable to do with any living person. Jung is my personal image of the Wise Old Man archetype. Yet, James Hillman, whose work I was familiar with while he was still alive and well, and whose significance is comparable to that of Jung, never captured my imagination in even remotely the same way (huh, now he actually does, a little, since he's been dead since 2011).

Why do we do this? Why does death seem to open the doors to all kinds of projections of super-human numinosity on our part?

Available now!

Death puts the coat of timelessness on people and their ideas, lifting them out of banality. As I discuss in Part II of my new book More Than Allegory, what we see as 'the past' is a symbol of the more primary, root-level mental contents of the singularity we call 'the now.' To put it allegorically, the stuff of the past is closer to God and the Devil. Indeed, the myths underpinning every major religion consist of events in a far distant past. If those stories were meant to have taken place last week, for instance, would they be invested with so much power, meaning and significance? Would we look upon them, as well as their characters and message, in quite the same way? When people die, they and their ideas are instantly locked in the past; exclusively. They no longer partake in the banality of the present, thereby acquiring a different aura.

All this, of course, raises some critical questions. Which side of the divide is more true: (a) the respect we grant to people and their ideas after they are dead, or (b) the cynicism, contempt and disregard we often treat them with while they are alive? Does one need to die in order to be granted a fair hearing and be taken truly seriously?

Shattered Innocence

I grieve the loss of my innocence.
The mystery and possibilities that once were my world abandoned me,
Frivolousness and claustrophobia left in their stead.

Each door traversed turned an infinitude of magical could-be's into one cold has-been.
No longer an endless, multi-dimensional path ahead,
But a long line of footprints behind.

I ache in sorrow not for my failures, but for my successes.
They revealed the hollowness of early dreams,
Failing my childhood.

I feel grievously disappointed in people,
From whom I once expected wisdom, strength and reassurance,
But who are just as lost as me.

Knowledge betrayed me.
Maturity is the fall, and I fell.
Having seen through my innocence, I now feel naked and vulnerable.

In knowing, I have come to distrust the world.
Even my own body is an insidious alien forced upon me by nature,
Ready to ambush me at any time.

I feel angry at nature for her being what she is.
I feel furious at myself for having been such a fool,
And for having allowed myself to drift so far from where I started.

There are no masters.
There is no safe refuge.
There is nothing to hold on to.

Where did I lose myself?

Fragments of shattered dreams,
Evanescent shadows of what I once was,
Are all I still have.

I desperately miss the myth that once was real.

Dispelling straw-men: does brain imaging corroborate or contradict materialism?

Straw-man picture by Clyde Robinson. Reproduced under CC BY 2.0.

The two essays I wrote prior to this one have commanded a lot of interest and attention (see here and here). They discuss recent brain imaging studies on the effects of psychedelics. Surprisingly, the results have shown that, unlike what one would ordinarily expect from a materialist perspective, the increase in the richness and intensity of experience following the intake of psychedelics correlates with reductions of brain activity. Although these results, in and of themselves, do not single-handedly refute materialism, they do contradict its intuitions. After all, under materialism, brain activity constitutes experience. Therefore, I've referred to these studies as circumstantial evidence for the alternative, non-materialist philosophy I argue for (analytic summary freely available here).

Since publishing those two essays, I have been confronted with a barrage of straw-man arguments against my philosophy. Straw-man arguments are those wherein a critic first misconstrues my views (creating the "straw-man") and then proceeds to dismantle his misrepresentation of what I am saying (destroying the straw-man). With this essay, I hope to clarify a few key aspects of my position, in the hope that my critics will better understand what I am trying to get across. Nothing is discussed below that hasn't already been covered before, in one way or another, in the body of my work. But since the subject has now gained renewed relevance, it is worthwhile to reformulate certain clarifications.

Straw-man 1: Materialism does not imply that more experience should correlate with more overall brain activity.

And neither do I claim that it does. To clarify this, let us try to specify precisely what materialism does entail. In what follows, I choose my words carefully and precisely. In the interest of avoiding misinterpretations and further straw-men, I ask that you pay careful attention to my specific choice of words. Here we go:

According to materialism, certain aspects or patterns of brain activity constitute subjective experience. These particular aspects or patterns of brain activity are called the 'neural correlates of consciousness', or 'NCCs' for short. Notice that I use the word 'activity' here in the broad sense of metabolism itself (as such, "activity" is not restricted to e.g. neural firings alone). This way, only a dead, non-metabolizing brain has no activity. The activity of the brain thus consists of both NCCs and other neural processes that aren't NCCs. The latter are supposedly unconscious processes. Although these unconscious processes are still activity, their reduction doesn't necessarily correlate with a reduction of conscious experience, for they aren't NCCs. In fact, if these allegedly unconscious processes are inhibitory, their reduction may even cause an increase in NCCs and, therefore, conscious experience. All of this is what materialism entails.

Now, clearly an increase in NCCs may be accompanied by an even greater decrease in unconscious processes, leading to an overall decrease in brain activity. So indeed, materialism does not necessarily imply that more experience should always correlate with more overall brain activity. What's my point then?

It is this: under materialism, an increase in the richness/intensity of experience must still be accompanied by an increase in the metabolism associated with the NCCs, for subjective experiences are supposedly constituted by the NCCs. This is inescapable. After all, richer/intenser experience spans a broader information space in consciousness, and only increased metabolism can create that broader information space in the physical substrate of the brain. Any other alternative would decouple subjective experience from the workings of the living brain information-wise, which would directly contradict materialism. As such, materialism does imply a form of proportionality, but a local one: the richness/intensity of experience must be proportional to the compound metabolic level of the NCCs, for experience allegedly is the NCCs.

Having clarified this, what is the significance I see in the fact that psychedelic trances are not accompanied by increases in activity anywhere in the brain, but only reductions (see e.g. this study)? As we've just seen, materialism implies that a significant increase in the richness/intensity of experience should be accompanied by a significant increase in the compound metabolic level of the NCCs. We also know that psychedelic trances significantly increase the richness/intensity of experience when compared to placebo (more on this in point 3 below). As such, one should have observed at least localized but significant increases in brain activity in those areas of the brain corresponding to NCCs, even if the activity elsewhere (corresponding to unconscious processes) decreased even more, leading to less total brain activity. That these local increases were not observed makes any potential materialist explanation of the psychedelic experience at least counterintuitive. Allow me to elaborate.

It is, in principle, conceivable that the spatial resolution of functional brain scanners is such that, in the studies mentioned above, researchers couldn't discern between, on the one hand, hypothetical NCCs whose activity could have increased and, on the other hand, unconscious processes right 'on top of them' whose metabolism decreased even more, thereby masking the increase in the NCCs. But this stretches credulity and plausibility. It would require the rather astonishing coincidence that each and every part of each and every relevant NCC consistently had an unconscious process right 'on top of it,' intermingled with it, whose metabolism happened to decrease so significantly as to mask the corresponding NCC increase. There is no reason why this should be so. Different neural processes are often easily discernible from each other in brain imaging, otherwise brain imaging wouldn't be of much use.

To put all this in perspective, consider this other brain imaging study. It shows that, if you dream that you are clenching your hand, the brain areas associated with hand motion light up clearly in an fMRI. Now think about it: dreams and psychedelic trances are analogous in that neither can be attributed to sensory inputs. Both experiences are imagined. Yet, in a dream, when you experience something as dull as clenching your dreamed-up hand, the corresponding brain activations can be clearly discerned. But when you undergo mind-boggling psychedelic excursions into other mental universes, scientists can discern no conclusive activations anywhere in the brain. You be the judge of whether this tell us something about the likelihood of materialism being correct. Personally, I think it does.

Available now.

Straw-man 2: Under materialism, several different types of neural dynamics are plausible candidates for constituting experience, not only neural firings.

I do not dispute this either. My point is much more generic and applies to whatever the NCCs might turn out to be, as explained in this passage of my book Why Materialism Is Baloney:
By postulating that subjective experiences are neural processes [i.e. the NCCs], the reigning materialist paradigm tentatively explains the ordinary correlations between mind states and brain states rather simply. Yet, this paradigm is currently articulated in only a vague and promissory manner, in that neuroscience does not specify precisely or unambiguously what measurable parameters of neural processes map onto what qualities of subjective experience.

This is an important point, so let me belabor this a bit. If every conscious experience is nothing but a neural process [i.e. an NCC], then there are two points-of-view from which to observe the same information flow associated with any experience: the perspective from the inside – that is, the experience itself – and the perspective from the outside – that is, what a neuroscientist sees when measuring the activity of a person’s brain while the person is having the experience. If materialism is correct, there always has to be a strict one-to-one correspondence between parameters measured from the outside [i.e. the NCCs] and the qualities of what is experienced form the inside. After all, subjective experience supposedly is what is measured from the outside. For instance, if I see the color red, there have to be measurable parameters of the corresponding neural process in my brain that are always associated with the color red. After all, my experience of seeing red supposedly is the neural process. Similarly, if I feel sad, there have to be measurable parameters of the corresponding neural process in my brain that are always associated with the feeling of sadness. After all, my experience of being sad supposedly is the neural process. You get the picture.

As I mentioned above, neuroscience today is very far from being able to provide a consistent one-to-one mapping between the qualities of a subjective experience and measurable parameters of the corresponding neural process. It is possible to argue that this merely reflects our currently limited progress in finding this mapping and that it will be found in the future as more research is done and new techniques are developed for measuring the finer parameters of brain activity. As a vague and promissory argument, this is unfalsifiable.
So far so good. The problem, however, is this:
Today we find ourselves in a peculiar situation wherein, of all things, ignorance is often used to defend materialism: since nobody can specify unambiguously what physiological process supposedly is consciousness, neuroscientists can always postulate a different hypothetical mapping that conceivably explains any particular experience. All that is required is some – any – level of activity anywhere in the brain, which is not too difficult to find or reasonably assume. The problem, of course, is that one cannot postulate a different materialist theory of consciousness for each different situation and still claim that the evidence supports materialism.

The reason such surprising ambiguity is tolerated was already hinted at in Chapter 1: when it comes to consciousness, there is no way – not even in principle – to logically deduce the properties of subjective experience from the properties of matter. In other words, there is no way to logically deduce conscious perception, cognition, or feeling from the mass, momentum, spin, position, or charge of the subatomic particles making up the brain. Such complete lack of intuition makes it impossible to judge whether a particular mapping between a brain process and a conscious experience is at all reasonable. Therefore, any proposed mapping looks, at first, just as good (or as bad) as any other, a fact easily misused in support of materialism. In an astonishing acknowledgment of how arbitrary the materialist explanations of consciousness can be, militant skeptic Michael Shermer, of all people, admitted that ‘the neuroscience surrounding consciousness’ is ‘nonfalsifiable.’

In all fairness, many neuroscientists readily admit that our current understanding of the brain is very limited. As such, it is entirely legitimate that they remain open to many different alternatives for explaining conscious experience on the basis of material processes. But one cannot make this admission and then turn around and proclaim that neuroscience’s progress has been corroborating materialism.

Straw-man 3: It is not clear that psychedelic trances entail a higher quantity of experience.

I am talking about the felt richness and intensity of experience here, not abstract bean counting. To deny that every person has a clear, living sense of the richness and intensity of their experience is disingenuous. Can we all agree that making love is a richer and intenser experience, which spans a much larger information space in consciousness, than staring at a white wall? Can we all agree that attending a rock concert while suffering from severe indigestion (yes, I've been there) is a richer and intenser experience than wiping the floor? More specifically, can we all agree that tripping to the center of the galaxy, reliving your own birth, facing your inner demons, losing your sense of personal identity, and then having God explain the secrets of life, the universe and everything to you (all of which are often reported during psychedelic trances) is a richer and intenser experience than staring at the inner coil of an fMRI scanner? If so, how does materialism then explain the reality of these differences in experiential richness and intensity? That's the question, not abstract bean counting. Refusing to acknowledge the validity of this question amounts to a denial of reality.

In a psychedelic study at Johns Hopkins, researchers found that 94% of the subjects described a psychedelic experience as among the top five most, or as the topmost, spiritually significant experience of his or her life. To get a taste for how people describe their trances, have a look at a few reports at Erowid's experience vault. Psychedelic trances are well-known to entail the apotheosis of experience in all its qualities and nuances: visual, auditory, tactile, cognitive, emotional, spiritual, syntactical, logical, etc. While pointing this out during the past couple of days, I have been confronted by a neuroscientist who argued that the fact that an experience is "among the top 5 most important things in your life has NOTHING to do with supposed increases in the quantity of subjective experience." Astonishingly, the suggestion here seems to be that materialism doesn't need to explain the most significant experience of one's life in terms of shifts in brain metabolism. What does, then? Do materialists even need a living brain to claim to explain experience?

This same neuroscientist argued that I am "confusing [the] significance, beauty and emotional impact of these experiences with something far more difficult to measure which is the quantity of moments of experience per unit of time." But wait a moment: what are "significance," "beauty" and "emotional impact" if not experiences that themselves need to be explained under a materialist framework? What else could they possibly be? Moreover, who the hell cares about the "quantity of moments of experience per unit of time"? This is one of those ontology-bound flights of abstraction that try to replace reality with a conceptual framework. I don't experience discrete and countable jelly beans of qualities. I simply experience. I am interested in significance, beauty and emotion, not the "quantity of moments of experience per unit of time," because it is significance, beauty and emotion that constitute my reality. An ontology that rejects this reality, instead of making sense of it, is a meaningless and useless ontology.

For a dialogue about the mind-body problem to be productive, one has to at least acknowledge the basic facts of human experience, without begging the question of ontology.

The LSD study: an author responds

(Updated on 16 April 2016. A follow-up has also been published here.)

Picture by Imperial College London.

Yesterday I published an essay criticizing the media coverage of a brand new study on the neural correlates of the LSD experience. In that essay, I analyzed the original study and compared it to what the media reported. Towards the end, I also shared some social commentary about the media's role in our culture today, based on a philosophical interpretation of the study's results.

Today one of the study's authors, Luke Williams, responded to my essay through a comment in a Facebook group. I reproduce his response verbatim and in full below, inserting my comments and rebuttals as appropriate. Since, as you are about to see, Williams attacks the second part of my essay unceremoniously, I feel legitimized to now bring to the table aspects of my argument that I have held back in yesterday's essay. Namely, I feel now warranted to criticize the study authors themselves, for what I see as their shortcomings in ensuring accurate communication of their results to and by the media.

Williams starts by acknowledging the accuracy of my analysis. Referring to my essay, he writes:
This is half ok. The first section about the misrepresentation of the research in CNN and the Guardian is actually good, and he's clear that the paper itself doesn't support such interpretations, and it's a shame that the reporting is poor.
Great. The authors, of course, are authorities when it comes to their methods and results, so Williams' comments dispel any doubts there might have been about the accuracy of my assessment. But he continues:
On the other hand, the material is of a technical level that makes it really, really hard to describe without quite a lot of background, and it's hard to know how we can make this situation better.

But this is true for ALL science & medical journalism, from the most simple examples of relative and absolute risk, to the misrepresentation of experimental data of all kinds - pretty pictures sell more copies (apologies, generate more clicks and sell more adspace) than dry technical prose.
This is a defeatist appeal to sympathy and acquiescence that I certainly do not condone. If we were to follow along with Williams's views here, our culture and society would soon turn into a circus. Whether we like it or not, science has gained tremendous power in defining our cultural narrative about truth and reality, and neither the scientific media nor the scientists themselves can shy away from the responsibility this invests them with. As a matter of fact, I herewith call on the LSD study's authors to own up to this responsibility and actively demand that the media amend and correct their reporting. In my view, it is not OK for the authors to wash their hands as they watch the circus unfold. If they don't actively attempt to rectify the media's mistakes, who will? No, think about it: who else will? Moreover, it is even less OK for the authors to contribute to the circus by misrepresenting their own results (more on this below).
The second step of his argument is that the images and words chosen by the Guardian and CNN support a materialist metaphysics which is actually the opposite of what the paper says: "their choices portray the research results as confirming materialist expectations. That the results in fact do the opposite is not discussed anywhere". This is just total nonsense ...
Well, let us take a step back and contemplate the obvious: under materialism, brain activity constitutes experience. When people trip on psilocybin or LSD they report a significant increase in the intensity and breadth of their experiences. Therefore, materialists would expect to see an also significant increase in activity somewhere in the brain (yes, yes, I know about inhibitory neural processes and all that; more on it below). That the opposite is seen certainly doesn't corroborate materialist expectations, does it? Refusing to acknowledge this is puerile.

As I mentioned above, the study's authors are authorities when it comes to their methods and results. But they are not necessarily authorities when it comes to the philosophical interpretation of their results. The assertion Williams is calling 'total nonsense' is an assessment of philosophy, particularly metaphysics (as Williams himself acknowledges) and philosophy of mind. As such, Williams is simply expressing an uninformed opinion here; which he is, of course, entitled to do, just as any (lay) person.

My assertion that the LSD study's results favor a non-materialist ontology was not a casual one. I have been elaborating on this ontology for years now and the body of my work grounds my assertion. I have now written six books on the subject, countless essays and articles, and published dozens of videos. I have also written many academic papers on the subject.
... and based a weak understanding of the background of brain imagining science. Reductions in brain activity (as demonstrated via MEG in this current paper) no NOT support any non-materialist interpretations, universal consciousness, etc. For the very simple reason that reductions in brain activity occur all the time in normal cognition.
This can't possibly count as a refutation of my assertion, can it? Yes, reductions in brain activity occur all the time, and so do reductions in the intensity and breadth of subjective experience. The point is this: when a significant increase in the intensity and breadth of experience comes accompanied by a simultaneous decrease in overall brain activity, it becomes at least trickier to see how brain activity could constitute subjective experience.
The brain is a dynamic system that rapidly shifts resources to adapt to different functions. You can see reductions in brain activity in certain networks and areas under loads of different simple experiments and tasks, and these reductions are relative - we're talking about a few percent reduction in activity compared to the global brain, not a "total shutdown" as some have misrepresented it as.
Again, this misses the point entirely. For instance, in the original 2012 psilocybin study by the same Imperial College group, it has been shown that there were no significant increases in brain activity anywhere in the brain, only widespread decreases. The present LSD study shows no significant increases either. How can, under materialism, a significant increase in the intensity and breadth of experience correlate with no significant increase in activity anywhere in the brain? Where does the increase in experiential intensity and breadth come from? Appealing to a cessation of certain inhibitory processes doesn't cut the mustard, for that should then be accompanied by an increase in activity somewhere else in the brain (namely, the activity no longer inhibited). Yet, such an increase wasn't observed.

I have been debating neuroscientists on this for years now, and Williams doesn't really bring anything new to the table. In fact, he misses all the best materialist counterpoints that his more famous colleagues, such as Dr. Christof Koch and Dr. Steven Novella, have made against me. For completeness, here is a summary of my argument. If Williams can bring something to the table that hasn't already been covered in this summary, then by all means let us debate it.
Finally, to suggest that this is part of some sort of materialist conspiracy/stymergy is just speculative nonsense.
I seem to have hit a nerve...
It's only because this is poor reporting of some technical science, where the journalists have happened to go for the most pretty pictures they can, happens to be in the field of psychdelic neuroscience, that there's a connection with consciousness and materialism vs anti materialism at all.
This is a rather innocent view, especially when taking into consideration that the picture chosen by The Guardian wasn't the prettiest. Be it as the case may be, to counter this criticism Williams forces me to bring up what I believe to be an example of stigmergy rather close to him: that of Robin Carhart-Harris, his colleague and lead author of the LSD and psilocybin studies in question here. I believe it's safe to assume that Williams himself would acknowledge that Carhart-Harris isn't motivated by pretty pictures.

Before I proceed, however, let me make one thing absolutely clear: I've never said that the stigmergy I describe is necessarily malicious. I think the vast majority of its perpetrators do not act out of dishonesty or evil intentions. They are just caught up in the dynamics of the stigmergy. Regarding Robin Carhart-Harris, I feel absolute conviction that his actions towards the media have always been well-intended and honest; never malicious. Let this be very clear upfront.

Available now.

Nonetheless, I believe Carhart-Harris has misrepresented the results of his own group's research towards the media; more than once. I've elaborated extensively on this in essay 3.5 of my book Brief Peeks Beyond, from which I quote below:
[In an essay] titled ‘Magic mushrooms expand your mind and amplify your brain’s dreaming areas,’ Carhart-Harris goes on to say that psilocybin ‘increased the amplitude … of activity’ in brain regions associated with dreaming. This is not corroborated by the 2014 technical paper, which reports an increase only in the amplitude of variations of brain activity levels. Carhart-Harris then speculates that psychedelics enabled ‘disinhibited activity’ in neural systems associated with emotions. This again suggests that activity increases somewhere in the brain as a result of psychedelic use, both in contradiction to Carhart-Harris’ own 2012 results and without substantiation in the 2014 technical article. In another popular article in which Carhart-Harris is quoted, he goes beyond mere suggestion: ‘You’re seeing these areas getting louder, and more active,’ he is quoted as saying. ‘It’s like someone’s turned up the volume there.’ What’s going on here?

Puzzled, I emailed Carhart-Harris asking for clarifications. He and Enzo Tagliazucchi, the main author of the second study, replied promptly and very generously. The email exchange that ensued over several days confirms my assessments above. Namely: 
  • Indeed, they found just an increase in the variability of the brain activity signal, that is, an increase in fluctuations as opposed to a constant, unchanging signal. Phase information is lost in the variability analysis, so no conclusions can be extracted about the average amplitude of the signal.
  • Tagliazucchi interprets the variability of brain activity during rest as analogous to actual brain activity when the subject is engaged in performing a task. The variability may show how often spontaneously occurring neural processes engage and disengage, thus providing a measure of ‘something going on’ in the brain while the subject is at rest. As such, variability could be looked upon as a kind of ‘meta-activity’ measurement that may correlate better with the qualitative changes in subjective experience reported by the subject
  • Actual brain activity has not been found to increase anywhere in the brain. 
After having seen an earlier draft of this essay, the researchers requested that I do not quote their email messages to me; a request I find disappointing but which I am honoring. All I can thus say is that, following extensive and in-depth exchanges with them, it is my genuine understanding that Carhart-Harris’ popular science piece and some of his statements quoted in the press were inaccurate. Carhart-Harris himself has neither explicitly agreed with nor denied this assessment, although I believe it to be an inescapable implication of the email communications.

I see nothing wrong with exploring the idea of ‘meta-activity.’ In fact, I applaud it. I just feel that the terminology should be used rigorously and unambiguously to avoid misleading readers and the media alike. You see, brain activity – that is, metabolism – is one thing; variations of brain activity are another thing entirely. Speed is not the same as acceleration. A car that repeatedly stops, accelerates and then stops again is not necessarily a car that travels fast. The theoretical hypothesis that ‘meta-activity’ may be a more useful measurement does not make it valid to use the word ‘activity’ as shorthand for ‘activity variability.’  (Brief Peeks Beyond, pp. 89-91)
Do I believe Carhart-Harris' misrepresentation was a sincere and honest mistake? As I said above, absolutely. I even think the mistake was understandable. The confusion arose from a technical point related to signal processing (which I happen to have an education on), not neuroscience. For completeness, allow me to explain it: the 2014 study found an increase in the ‘total spectral power’ of brain activity in certain regions. This seems to suggest that brain activity increased, but it has nothing to do with it. Technically, to calculate the ‘spectral power’ one must first derive the so-called Fourier Transform of the brain activity signal. By doing so, the original time-domain signal is moved onto the frequency domain and broken down into its many frequency components (the so-called ‘frequency spectrum’). The ‘spectral power’ is calculated by squaring the amplitude of those frequency components. One then knows how much ‘power’ each component contributes to the original time-domain signal. But because phase information is discarded in the calculation, one doesn’t know whether the contribution of each component is constructive or destructive. In other words, one doesn’t know whether a component interferes constructively or destructively with the others. Often the total spectral power is huge but, because the components interfere mostly destructively with each other, the time-domain signal is puny. In contrast, low total spectral power often corresponds to a significant time-domain signal, because the component frequencies are in phase and interfere constructively with each other, adding up their respective contributions. Therefore, an increase in ‘total spectral power,’ in and of itself, neither implies nor suggests that brain activity increased. Carhart-Harris, perhaps misled by the word 'power,' thought that it did and passed that interpretation on to the media.

Again, this is an understandable mistake for sure. But it also happens to be a mistake that rendered the interpretation of the paper beautifully consistent with materialist expectations. So I ask you: if the mistake had led to a conclusion that contradicted materialism, would it have been more thoroughly checked before being passed on to the media? Would more questions have been raised? Would the media itself have been a little more critical about the message if it appeared to contradict materialism? No assumption of maliciousness is required to imagine that the answer to these questions is 'yes.' Carhart-Harris' mistaken interpretation contradicted even his own previous work, yet that apparently wasn't enough to trigger a cautious reconsideration. Could it have something to do with the fact that the mistake happened to fit materialist intuitions like a glove? If so, this is the stigmergy I am talking about, and it has nothing to do with pretty pictures. Materialism has become a self-reinforcing paradigm of thought whose increasing disconnect with reality is continuously and actively obfuscated by the stigmergy.

The remainder of Williams' criticism requires no rebuttal or comment, really. I quote it below purely in the interest of completeness:
Finally, EVEN if it was the case (although it's certainly not been demonstrated here) hierarchical power structures in society use the currently leading philosophical paradigm to further their own ends - um, so what? The point about entrenched power in late capitalism is that it tries to use whatever it can, including turning the apparently radical and revolutionary into tools (see "Commodify Your Dissent" for background). The power structures for 100s of years used another paradigm - dualism, via theology, to oppress, enslave and maintain their grip on power. It's not a unique problem to "evil" materialism, dudes.
I want to conclude this essay by highlighting my admiration for the world-class scientific work Williams, Carhart-Harris, and the entire crew at Imperial College London are doing in the field of psychedelic research. Theirs is courageous, pioneering, timely and incredibly important work. Its potential applications in restoring psychedelics not only as a legitimate, but also extraordinarily effective tool in our pharmacology are hard to overestimate. My criticism towards them is limited to only two points: their interactions with the media and their occasional attempt to foray into philosophy of mind, which does no service to their scientific work. I applaud their research and wish them only the best in their pursuits.

The LSD study: you're being subtly deceived (again)

(Update 13 April 2016: A follow-up essay has been published after a study author commented on this post. Click here to view.)

From PNAS, reproduced under Fair Use provisions.

A new study on the neural correlates of the LSD experience has just being published, to great fanfare. Naturally, the mainstream media is all over it, because of the loaded history of psychedelics. The Guardian published an article and so did CNN, even with front-page visibility in its website. As many of my readers know, the same group that carried out this study has published other studies earlier, in which they've shown that psilocybin (the active ingredient in magic mushrooms) only reduces brain activity, instead of increasing it. See this earlier essay, as well as this one. Such results are counter-intuitive from a materialist perspective since, if brain activity indeed constituted experience, the mind-boggling psychedelic state should correlate with more brain activity, not less. So the key question of interest in this new study is this: Does brain activity increase or decrease when the subjects are under the influence of LSD?

The facts reported in the study

Let's focus on the question above and see what the study has to say about it. The researchers first show that a localized increase in cerebral blood flow (CBF) does happen in the visual cortex of the subjects. This is shown in Figure 1 of the paper, which I link below for ease of reference. The third row of images (from the top) shows the CBF difference between placebo and LSD. The small red dots at the back of the brain show the increase in CBF.

Naturally, CBF is not brain activity; it only tends to correlate with it. In previous studies, the team has found only reductions in CBF when the subjects were exposed to psilocybin, so this seems to be a discrepancy. Here is how the paper explains it:
One must be cautious of proxy measures of neural activity (that lack temporal resolution), such as CBF ... lest the relationship between these measures, and the underlying neural activity they are assumed to index, be confounded by extraneous factors, such as a direct vascular action of the drug.
The paper also suggests that magnetoencephalography (MEG) is a more reliable method for measuring actual brain activity because, unlike CBF, it measures brain activity directly. They write:
Rather than speculate on the above-mentioned discrepancy, it may be more progressive to highlight the advantages of ... MEG.
If you then look at their MEG measurement results, sure enough reductions of brain activity were observed all over the brain. This is shown in their Figure 5, linked here for convenience:

Clearly, there is a whole lot of blue, which indicates broad reductions of brain activity in the LSD state, when compared to placebo. This is what the paper actually concludes, suggesting that the localized increases in CBF observed in the visual cortex may be attributable to measurement artifacts.

What the media is reporting

This is all abundantly clear in the scientific paper but, for some reason, the media is reporting precisely the opposite! Here are some quotes from the CNN article:
Images of the brain under a hallucinogenic state showed almost the entire organ lit up with activity.
The visual cortex became much more active with the rest of the brain, and blood flow to visual regions also increased.
Huh?! "Much more active"?! This is not said anywhere in the paper. Localized increases in blood flow, as we've seen above, were indeed observed, but the researchers themselves do not conclude that this means an actual increase in brain activity, let alone the visual cortex becoming "much more active."

What's going on?

What is behind all this

The Guardian article sheds some light on what's happening here. Out of the five figures used in the original research paper, the Guardian chose to display this one in their article:

Well, not quite. They've removed all references to what the figure is actually meant to show ("V1 RSFC"), as you can see in the edited version they published. How interesting. The figure caption they added is even more peculiar:
A second image shows different sections of the brain, either on placebo, or under the influence of LSD (lots of orange).
Not only does this caption fail to mention what the figure is actually showing, it adds the evocative "lots of orange," as if it were clear what all this 'orange' means. Well, it isn't clear because the Guardian removed the explanation of what it actually means!

Let us be frank: if you were a casual reader looking at the picture, as edited and published by the Guardian, and reading its caption ("lots of orange"), what would you conclude? You would, of course, conclude that the picture shows a brain lighting up like a Christmas tree under the influence of LSD. Yet that is just about the opposite of what the technical paper says.

"What does this figure then actually mean?" I hear you ask. It's showing the measured "resting state functional connectivity" (RSFC) in the primary visual cortex (V1), a region at the back of the brain responsible for visual processing. RSFC here is a measure of how spontaneous activity in the visual cortex correlates with activity in other parts of the brain. In other words, what the paper shows is that, although brain activity, as measured with MEG, has decreased, the activity that remains is more synchronized across brain regions. This is what the researchers were referring to when they gave the following quote to the CNN article:
When the volunteers took LSD, many additional brain areas—not just the visual cortex—contributed to visual processing.
That's it; it's just as simple.

How to make sense of this?

Clearly, the Guardian journalists chose one specific figure to illustrate their article (out of the five available in the original research paper) so to show a dramatic increase in something going on in the brain under the influence of LSD. Only Figure 2 of the original paper shows this, none of the four others does. The journalists also manipulated the text in the figure itself, as well as its caption, in such a way that most readers will likely interpret this something as brain activity itself. Obviously, such editing renders the message of the Guardian article much more consistent with what people expect to see under a materialist paradigm, which states that brain activity constitutes experience. I cannot pass judgment on what the motivations or intentions of the journalists were, but their choices portray the research results as confirming materialist expectations. That the results in fact do the opposite (see this essay for an explanation) is not discussed anywhere in the Guardian's article. Why not? Why these choices?

It gets worse. The CNN article is guilty of more than just being misleading: it's outright incorrect. To say that the results "showed almost the entire organ [i.e. the brain] lit up with activity" is sensationally wrong. The figure that likely motivated this assertion (Figure 2 of the original research paper) doesn't show raw brain activity at all, but RSFC, which is something else.

Think about all this and make your own conclusions before reading on.

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In my earlier book Brief Peeks Beyond I discussed several cases of media bias towards the materialist paradigm that are entirely analogous to the above. I dedicate a long essay to an analysis of how earlier results from the same group behind the LSD study above were misrepresented not only by the media, but by one of the researchers himself (this last statement may sound incredible, but I substantiate it abundantly in the book and stand by my conclusion). Here is how I prefaced the essay in the book:
The most vexing aspect of nature from a materialist perspective happens to also be the only carrier of reality anyone can ever know: consciousness itself. Indeed, materialism would make a lot more sense if consciousness didn’t exist at all; if the entire universe consisted simply in the mechanical unfolding of unconscious processes. Clearly, it doesn’t. So how could a metaphysics that fails to explain – even in principle – the one obvious aspect of existence attain, and maintain, the status of reigning worldview? Many indications are provided in the essays of this chapter. ... essay 3.5 discusses the effects of psychedelics on the human brain, as well as their implications for the materialist axiom that the brain generates all experience. This essay was the most unsettling for me to research and write, for reasons that will become clear to you after you’ve read it. For a while, in the interest of avoiding polemic, I considered not including it in this book. Yet, precisely for the reason it is so upsetting to me, essay 3.5 is probably one of the most illustrative of the overall message of this work.
With the repeat of this kind of media bias I witnessed today, I am glad I included it. That essay has now gained renewed relevance and importance, and I urge all people interested in these psychedelic studies to peruse it carefully.

Having analyzed a number of cases of materialist-biased misrepresentation and false attributions by the media, the book reaches a broader conclusion:
Materialism serves powerful economic and political interests. ‘If our confusion suits the reigning political and economic regime just fine, it is because it stands as proof that the operation to supplant the dream-space of soul and psyche with a fully controllable interface is going according to plan,’ writes Jean-Francois Martel. What forces stand to gain from the continuance of materialism? How do these forces manifest themselves in society?

Questions like these evoke the idea of conspiracies. Yet, our ordinary view of conspiracies tends to be rather caricatural: secret, powerful organizations working behind the curtain, whose goals and actions are deliberately orchestrated by hierarchies of control with an elusive leadership at the top. Secret meetings are allegedly held, secret orders issued and disseminated through myriad covert channels. Everybody in a position of any significance in society is allegedly involved; everybody except us. How likely is all this? You see, this caricatural view of conspiracies helps to protect and preserve what is really going on. If our only choice is to either believe in the caricature or absolve all players of all guilt, it is easy to see how the world is kept entranced.

It has become practically impossible to reclaim the more moderate denotations of the word ‘conspiracy.’ So let me try a different word: stigmergy. Stigmergy happens when agents co-ordinate their actions indirectly, through the local effects of their behavior in the environment. These local effects influence subsequent actions by other agents, whose effects, in turn, influence the behavior of yet other agents, and so on. This way, local actions by different agents reinforce and build upon each other, leading to the spontaneous rise of globally co-ordinated, systematic activity. Ant and termite colonies, for instance, operate according to stigmergy: there’s no hierarchy of control, no elusive leadership, no broadcasting of secret orders. Yet, the resulting behavior is systematic – following a clear global agenda – as if it were centrally co-ordinated by some kind of secret cabal.

There is vicious, insidious stigmergy in our society today. The agenda of this stigmergy is the maintenance of materialism. It manifests itself as a broad network of subtle local actions, biases and values, each serving powerful interests. These local dynamics build up into a system of global reinforcement; a virtual cabal, so to speak. The stigmergy has turned most of us into entranced drones, serving a mad state of affairs that is slowly but inexorably killing our humanity.
I confess to feeling powerless and discouraged, especially today, in face of this stigmergistic barrage. Again from the book:
While reading this essay, you’re thinking more critically about this specific study. But how many similar articles about other studies have you casually read over the years? How many of your implicit beliefs and convictions today – ‘facts’ you take for granted – have been subtly created through exposure to similarly misleading hype? Scary, isn’t it?
All I can do is to raise the alarm, through essays like this, every time I see an instance of misleading and even outright false journalistic reporting of scientific results, whose agenda is to massage everything into the boundaries and expectations of materialism. I have no delusions that my efforts make much of a difference, but I do what I can. The rest is up to society at large.

The linguistic demon of space-time

Detail of the frescos in the Cattedrale di Santa Maria del Fiore, Florence, Italy.
Photo by Bernardo Kastrup, hereby released into the public domain.

Time and space are one of the greatest conundrums of both science and philosophy, and have been so since we began to think about them self-reflectively. Many, especially in physics, see space-time as an objective thing, which can be bent and twisted. Others, namely in Eastern philosophy, see time and space as illusions, narratives in the mind without any objective existence. An intense dialectic goes on between these two apparently opposing views.

But when it comes to explaining and communicating these views, the playing field is anything but level. Those who espouse the notion that time and space are just illusory narratives face the apparently impossible challenge of articulating their position in language. After all, language already has time and space built right into it: we conjugate verbs according to tenses that reflect time; the linguistic separation between subject and object assumes the objective existence of space; grammar organizes the structure of language along the axes of time and space; and so on. Language assumes and reflects the notion of objective time and space in its very structure. So anyone trying to explain reality from outside time and space is immediately at a huge disadvantage the very moment they use language. How can they articulate their position then? How can they defend themselves coherently against the linguistic onslaught of the objectivists? How can they argue their case?

Because of this, Eastern philosophers have insisted that the only way to understand the illusory nature of time and space is through direct realization, not explanations. Explanations are linguistic and, as such, already assume time and space to begin with. As a result, our cultural narrative has been completely dominated by the notion that time and space really do exist objectively. After all, cultural narratives are the offspring of language; they fundamentally depend on our ability to communicate linguistically. Moreover, the direct realization of the illusory nature of time and space is extremely elusive. We are all immersed in a culture that denies and ridicules it. The result is a self-reinforcing ethos—a 'demon' of sorts—that imprisons the vast majority of us in the finality of objective time and the confinement of objective space. We are—or so the demon screams—limited beings lost in the vastness of the cosmos, destined to oblivion at the moment of death. We've been eaten by the demon and completely lost touch with our own inherent transcendence. It is critical to realize this: it is the demon of objective space-time that robs us of our felt sense of transcendence and creates all suffering.

The only way to fight back against the demon is to coherently talk about the nature of reality from outside time and space. But how to do this? How to use language to deny that which is built into language? How to use words and grammar to make sense of reality without tenses or distinction between subject and object? How to understand our felt sense of a personal past, as well as our inability to identify with the universe at large, simply by reading something, instead of having to attain enlightenment ourselves?

Notice that, up until my book Brief Peeks Beyond, my own work has indirectly granted validity to time and space. I've used metaphors such as swirling whirlpools in a stream, which assume space (the extension of the stream) and time (the interval along which the whirlpool can dynamically swirl). We think in terms of time and space, so my work up to that moment has simply acquiesced to this reality. My approach has been to pick my fights carefully: I've focused on debunking the contemporary notion that there is objective matter 'out there,' outside subjective experience. But in doing so I've left the beast of objective space-time untouched.

Available now.

In Parts II and III of my new book More Than Allegory, however, I finally bite this bullet. There, for the first—and perhaps last—time, I attempt to coherently make sense of life and reality in a way that does not assume the objective existence of either time or space. I attempt to explain everything—the unfathomable variety and structure of existence—without extending it along the axes of time or space, but by squeezing all the patterns of existence into the singularity of the now. To do this, I introduce the key notion of what I call the 'cognitive big bang.' From the book:
The present moment is the cosmic egg described in so many religious myths, which we briefly discussed in Part I. It is a singularity that births all existence into form. It seeds our mind with fleeting consensus images that we then blow up into the voluminous bulk of projected past and future. These projections are like a cognitive ‘big bang’ unfolding in our mind. They stretch out the intangibility of the singularity into the substantiality of events in time. But unlike the theoretical Big Bang of current physics, the cognitive ‘big bang’ isn’t an isolated occurrence in a far distant past. It happens now; now; now. It only ever happens now. (pp. 102-103)
Indeed, the 'cognitive big bang' replaces space-time as an explanatory framework for the undeniable variety and structure of our experiences. It allows reality to be made sense of in language in a way that still rejects objective space-time. It carries the potential to kill—or at least fatally wound—the demon. The attempt is somewhat precarious, since language, by its very nature, constantly tries to seduce the reader into thinking in terms of space and time at every twist and turn of the text. But I believe it can nonetheless be successful, if only you read the words with attention and self-discipline. I do believe there is a way to realize the illusory nature of time and space simply by reading a coherently written piece of text, without having to achieve what in the East has been called 'enlightenment.' This has been my attempt in Parts II and III of the book. And if you succeed, you will realize that...
The past is always gone and the future never comes. There is only ever the present. Have you ever left the present in your entire life? Even if you had a time machine to visit the ‘future,’ during your visit the ‘future’ would be your present. You cannot escape the present; ever; not even theoretically.

Past and future exist only as mental explanations and predictions, images in the mind. But these images are experienced in the present. Pause and consider this. There has never been a single moment in your entire life in which the past or the future existed as anything other than images experienced in the present. Any other conclusion is simply the subjective output of an intellectual model of reality—no matter how plausible—not a mind-independent fact.

Forever locked in the now, we subjectively project a past backwards and a future forwards. ... But even those projections exist only insofar as they are experienced in the present. Past and future, at bottom, are simply particular qualities or configurations of certain present experiences: the past corresponds to the qualities of remoteness and finality, while the future corresponds to fuzziness and openness. It is our intellect that mistakes these different qualities of present experience for an objective timeline extending back and forth. Past and future are merely concepts arising from cognitive confusion. (pp. 99-100)