Response to Peter Hankins


Illustration from Wikimedia Commons.

In a recent post in his popular and well respected blog, Conscious Entities, author Peter Hankins discussed my recent paper in the Journal of Consciousness Studies (JCS), as well as its companion essay on Scientific American magazine. Peter's assessment is largely fair and positive, though he points out a few problems with my approach that he considers "overwhelming." In this post, I'd like to clarify my position and offer a response to Peter's criticisms.

Peter writes:
Does DID have the metaphysical significance Kastrup would give it, though? One fundamental problem, to get it up front, is this: if we, as physical human beings, are generated by DID in the cosmic consciousness, and that DID is literally the same thing as the DID observed in patients, how come it doesn’t generate a new body for each of the patient’s alters?
The equivalent of "different bodies" in the case of literal DID would be different, measurable, dissociative neural processes in the patient's brain. That said, my claim is not that cosmic consciousness has a literal form of DID. As a matter of fact, DID is defined as a human psychopathology, so it cannot apply literally to nature as a whole.

My appeal to DID is thus analogical: I posit that something like DID occurs at the level of cosmic consciousness and that the different "dissociative processes" in cosmic consciousness correspond to different living organisms in nature. The JCS paper, in fact, elaborates with some precision on what is meant by this analogy: a break or cessation of certain associative links across phenomenal contents (see Section 9, starting at page 140 of the JCS paper, particularly Figure 1). Peter understands this:
I would say that the most reasonable response would be to deny that cosmic and personal DID are exactly the same phenomena and regard them as merely analogous, albeit perhaps strongly so.
Precisely. Although my claim is that what happens in cosmic consciousness is merely like DID, I believe the similarities are strong enough that the occurrence of DID in humans provides an empirical proof-of-principle: there are dissociative processes in nature powerful enough to explain the (apparent) decomposition of a unified consciousness into seemingly separate centers of experience. This is extremely significant, for here is nature showing us the way to solve the decomposition problem.

Peter makes accurate inferences from my material:
In Kastrup’s system we begin with a universal consciousness which consists of a sort of web of connected thoughts and feelings. Later there will be perceptions, but at the outset there’s nothing to perceive; I’m not sure what the thoughts could be about, either – pure maths, perhaps – but they arise from the inherent tendency of the cosmic consciousness to self-excite (just as a normal human mind, left without external stimulus, does not fall silent, but generates thoughts spontaneously).
Indeed, I imagine those "pure thoughts," prior to the rise of perceptions, as having a mathematical nature. I further imagine them to be accompanied by an innate aesthetic feeling related to symmetry. This would be consistent with the laws of nature as we know them today.
I’m not clear whether Kastrup envisages all these thoughts and feelings being active at the same time, or whether new ones can be generated and added in.
Both. I think the phenomenal contents of cosmic consciousness, just like our own, can occur both in parallel (as in when a thought occurs together with the emotion it triggers) and in sequence (as in when a perception is followed by a memory).

That said, as an idealist, I think spacetime itself is a phenomenal quality, not an objective scaffolding within which cosmic consciousness operates. This leads to some difficulties for the idealist, which I address in the closing chapter of my upcoming book, The Idea of the World.

Available for pre-order on amazon.

Peter continues:
I think the natural and parsimonious way to go from there would be solipsism. The cosmic consciousness is all there is, and these ideas about other people and external reality are just part of its random musings.
This is subtle, so please bear with me. I do think cosmic consciousness is all there is. Our individual 'consciousnesses' are just dissociated segments of the one cosmic consciousness, never fundamentally separated from it. But is this what is traditionally meant by solipsism? I don't think so. A solipsist is someone who believes that only his or her personal consciousness exists, and that all other seemingly conscious beings exist only as images on the solipsist's screen of perception. In other words, for a solipsist there is nothing it is like to be you or me; there is only something it is like to be the solipsist. All other beings allegedly have no conscious inner lives of their own.

In this sense, my position is antagonistic to solipsism: by looking upon every living being in nature as a dissociated alter of cosmic consciousness, each with a dissociated conscious inner life of its own, I am precisely contradicting solipsism; I am granting that there is something it is like to be you, your neighbor, the ants crawling on your lawn, the bacteria swimming in your toilet and the trees growing in your garden. In fact, the very idea of positing something like DID at a cosmic level aims precisely at explaining the multiple, concurrent conscious inner lives of living beings. If solipsism were true, none of it would be necessary: there would be only the personal consciousness of the solipsist, which in turn dreams up everything and everyone else within its own personal boundaries.
So instead [Kastrup] takes a different view. Somehow (?), islands of the overall web of cosmic consciousness may get detached. They then become dissociated consciousnesses, and can both perceive and be perceived. Since their associative links with the rest of the cosmos have been broken, I don’t quite know why they don’t lapse into solipsistic beings themselves, unable to follow the pattern of their thoughts beyond its own compass.
The alters do lose their ability to "follow the pattern of their thoughts beyond" their dissociative boundaries. But the external thoughts surrounding the alters impinge on the alters' dissociative boundaries from the outside, leading to the phenomenal category we call sense perception. I've tried to explain this in Section 11, starting at page 146 of the JCS paper, particularly with Figures 2 and 3.
In fact, and this may be the strangest thing in the theory, our actual bodies, complete with metabolism and all the rest, are the appearance of these metaphysical islands: ‘living organisms are the revealed appearance of alters of universal consciousness’. Quite why the alters of universal consciousness should look like evolved animals, I don’t know.
According to the internal logic of my view, alters should look like something, which might as well be what we came to call living organisms. Why not? Peter's very question here seems to be motivated by an intuition whose validity I fail to see. My views do not contradict the laws of nature as we know them, so alters (that is, living organisms) look like what they do because that's how the laws of nature, through evolution by natural selection, shaped them. I introduce no new factor or problem here. I am simply interpreting what life is under a metaphysical scheme: life is what dissociated alters of cosmic consciousness look like from across dissociative boundaries.
How does sex between these alters give rise to a new dissociative island in the form of a new human being?
I also do not solve the problem of abiogenesis nor create any new difficulty in this regard: the origin of life from non-life (abiogenesis) was the formation of the first dissociated alter of cosmic consciousness. This may have been very 'difficult' (in the sense of being improbable) for nature to do, but once it was done, organisms (that is, alters) found ways to facilitate the process through biological reproduction. Why did they do it? Because evolution by natural selection led them to evolve this capability. Again, I introduce no new difficulty or factor here. I am merely providing a metaphysical interpretation of these processes.
It seems that Kastrup really wants to have much of the conventional world back; a place where autonomous individuals with private thoughts are nevertheless able to share ideas about a world which is not just the product of their imaginations. But it’s forbiddingly difficult to get there from his starting position.
What Peter calls the "conventional world" is, to me, a composite of empirical facts and established scientific theory. If I were to contradict those, or make them untenable under my ontology, I believe the latter would simply be demonstrably wrong. So, in this sense, I do want "to have much of the conventional world back." As a matter of fact, I don't want to part with it to begin with!

As for it being "forbiddingly difficult to get there from [my] starting position," I just disagree. I don't see why it should be difficult, given that I've attempted to systematically tackle every criticism of my views in this regard (see e.g. this paper).

Peter does have one point, though:
There is a vast amount of metaphysical work to be done on this kind of aspect of the theory – enough for several generations of philosophers – and it may not be fair to expect Kastrup to have done it all, let alone get it all into this single paper.
I concur, and that's why I've written a 312-page book elaborating much more thoroughly on these ideas. Naturally, even that book won't be enough to address all the metaphysical details that need to be worked out, but it is at least a more complete attempt than the JCS paper alone.

I want to close this response by agreeing with Peter on a crucial point:
These are, of course, radical new ideas; but curiously they seem to me to bear a strong resemblance to the old ones of the Gnostics. ... I don’t make the comparison to discredit Kastrup’s ideas; on the contrary if it were me I should be rather encouraged to have these ancient intellectual forebears.
I am! The Gnostic writings, the Upanishads, many ancient myths and even certain interpretations of catholic and mainstream Christian scripture, all hint at, or outright describe, similar ideas. Indeed, I've even written a book about it.

Although I was not aware of these similarities when I began to develop my ideas (shame on me for my ignorance), I feel very happy to acknowledge them today. To me, they provide a confidence-boosting validation and a solid historical foundation for what I am trying to do. I am content enough with the role of trying to frame these ancient ideas in modern language, using modern metaphors, and defending them with modern evidence. I happily make no claims of originality.

Comments

  1. Very clear responses. One of the many interesting thing I have learned following your work, and people's reactions to it, is how differently people respond to metaphors. Its a good example in microcosm of how difficult it is to get across ideas that are complex in their simplicity, so to speak. I think ultimately you can only do what you have been doing, which is find many different ways to say the same thing over and over again, using different approaches and adding detail as it develops. As you said though Hankin got it mostly right.

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  2. Many thanks for these generous and helpful remarks. I feel a certain guilt about not having read more widely in your other writing on these topics!

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  3. Well said, and thank you for your contributions to the discussion of his work. This modern tumble through ancient themes is, I think, vital to the possibility of a new vision for humanity.

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  4. As a psychotherapist, I have many times - before having read any of Bernardo's work - told clients that we are all a bit caught up in a version of DID or of bipolar or Borderline push-pull dynamics with the world and the 'others' around us !

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