The strangest possibility: The physical world may be exactly what it seems to be

Is the physical world really made of abstract, mathematically-defined atoms?
Mystery has to do with deeper truths hiding behind mere appearances. What we see and hear is just appearance; the physical world, as it is in itself, consists of unexpected and mind-boggling truths—or so we imagine. Yet, perhaps the greatest of all mysteries is hiding in plain sight, right under our noses. Indeed, if we ponder our situation carefully, we come to the startling realization that the strangest possibility of all is this: the physical world may be exactly what it seems to be. This possibility, if true, would force us to part with our dearest narratives about the nature of reality.

According to the mainstream story, the physical world consists of particles and force fields defined in purely mathematical terms. These particles and force fields have only abstract, quantitative properties such as mass, charge, momentum, position in spacetime, spin, etc. But they entirely lack intrinsic qualities: the physical world out there, in and of itself, has no smell, tone, taste, color or texture. Instead, these qualities are supposedly generated by our brain, inside our skull. The red you see exists solely inside your head; out there there are only electromagnetic fields with a certain—quantifiable—frequency of vibration. The texture you feel exists only inside your head; out there there are only geometric arrangements of molecules. That we attribute color and texture to things out there is merely a projection, a psychological artifact of our cognitive apparatus. All the qualities you perceive around you right now are—or so the story goes—inside your head. Your real skull is beyond everything you perceive, encapsulating your whole experiential world like an invisible eggshell beyond the horizon. This—absurd as it may sound when rendered explicit—is what is supposed to be going on.

What motivates such a counterintuitive story? The main reason is that we all seem to inhabit the same world. If you were sitting next to me right now, we would both describe my living room in a mutually consistent manner. Yet my perception of the room would be different from yours in the details, given our slightly different perspectives within it. There thus appears to be a non-mental environment outside our respective perceptual fields, which is occupied by both of us and modulates our experience of the room. This environment is supposedly the physical world out there.

There are other reasons. For instance, although we can change the world of our imagination by a direct act of volition—I can imagine a pink elephant in my living room right now, if I wish… Oops, just did it—the same is not the case when it comes to the physical world. Unlike the images in our mind, the physical world has an autonomy that seems to place it outside our mind. Ergo, it must have no qualities, for the latter are essentially mental. Moreover, there are undeniable correlations between our inner experiences and measurable patterns of neural activity in our brain. This suggests to some that these experiences are somehow—nobody understands how, not even in principle—generated by our brain.

But the question is: Is there an alternative narrative that honors our intuition that the physical world—concrete physicality itself, as we normally understand it—consists of qualities of experience, such as color and texture? That what is physical is the touch I feel in my hands, the smell I feel in my nose and the taste I feel in my tongue, as opposed to abstract mathematical relationships? Can this narrative also make sense of the facts that we all seem to inhabit the same environment, that we can’t change it through a direct act of volition, and that patterns of brain activity do accompany experience? The answer is yes, as I have extensively and painstakingly elaborated in my book, The Idea of the World.

Available on amazon.
In such a short essay, it is impossible to go into the argument in any depth. But in very general terms, the story goes like this: the physical world is exactly what it seems to be, in the sense that it consists solely of the concrete qualities we experience as physicality—namely, the colors we see, the smells we feel, etc. Therefore, the physical world exists entirely within our mind… But not within our head! Our body is itself part of the physical world, so it is our body that is in our mind, not the other way around.

Does this mean that all reality is our private dream? That would follow only if the physical world were all there is. But we know that, in addition to the qualities of perception—that is, color, taste, smell, etc.—there are other mental categories, such as thoughts and feelings. So even if all perceptions are fundamentally private, we may still be immersed in a shared environment constituted by transpersonal thoughts and feelings.

In other words, the physical world is private, all right, but there is still a non-physical world of transpersonal thoughts and feelings—to which we have no direct access—surrounding us and which we all inhabit. What we experience as our perceptions of the world ‘out there’ is merely the outer appearance of these transpersonal thoughts and feelings; just as our brain and its neural activity is the outer appearance of our own private experiences. The whole physical universe is akin to a brain scan image of the mental activity of a mind at large, in which we are immersed.

So there is indeed a great mystery behind the appearances: What are these transpersonal thoughts and feelings that present themselves to us as the physical world? Although the latter is nothing more than our perceptual experiences—which we merely describe by means of abstract mathematical relationships—it points to something non-physical, ineffable, concurrently immanent and transcendent. While being exactly what it seems to be, the physical world still hints at something beyond itself. Therein lies the mystery.


  1. I hope that this work will make some start to question the current, deadening physicalist ontology.

  2. I look forward to your book. Some of your concepts are similar to my own ideas about what we perceive of reality. Best of luck with your book. I'll review it and hopefully on pass the link to others to purchase and buy.

  3. This relates to what I call "multisense realism" - that is, that what we experience of the physical world is as real as anything that can exist...more directly "real" than anything we can imagine exists theoretically. The division between privacy and publicity is also as real as real can be...until it isn't. The universe is filled with descriptions of itself in different sensory modalities, but it is what contains those descriptions prevents them from unraveling each other which gives it a sense of 'realism'. We do not live in the microphysical or astrophysical world, at least not the 'we' that is ordinarily experienced. Likewise, the world that is revealed through microscopes and telescopes does not include 'us'. Multiple modalities of perception, multiple scopes of access, multiple ways of overlapping and prevention of overlap. Reality is not merely subjective, but it is a continuum that includes the surreal, and includes the dynamically permeable properties of the boundary between subjective and objective presentations.

  4. Wonderfully written work to help explain a difficult topic

  5. after familiarizing myself with Bernardo Kastrups and Rupert Spiras works I lost any desire to think or ponder about nature of reality. They nailed it all

  6. If you follow this line of thinking, you arrive at an understanding that there can be only One mind (otherwise reality wouldn't be able to cohere across multiple vantage points) , and that everything is made of consciousness. Sounds strangely like all the ancient mystical teachings to me!

  7. hello sr Bernardo, I recently read his blog and Ian's and thanks to you, since my existential crisis, I have more evidence against materialism, and I thought I had enough and thanks to you I appreciate your evidence against materialism.

    I just wanted to ask you something and I wait for your answer if it is not inconvenient.

    I have read more of your blogs and I think I can provide you with information and evidence against materialism.

    If you answer me, I can send you the information here, but first I have a question and I would like to know your opinion and theories, for example about the claustrum and the integrated information theory of the asshole of Cristof Koch, although I have read theories and evidence against this theory, I would like to know his against the IIT and the clauatrum and system reticular as for example the case of the woman with epilepsy that when she was given strong discharges in the claustrum, she was unconscious during that brief period of seconds while she was electrified

    and I can also pass on evidence that contradicts many materialistic theories such as "blind sight" etc.

    and finally, I've read all the books and articles of the most militant materialist atheists that exist, just out of curiosity to see why they were so "sure" of what they said, and because they think so, after reading all, I had a time of depression, so look for evidence and authors site that provide evidence contrary to the materialist and let me tell you that ironically there is more in favor of dualism, idealism. etc that of "materialism".

    My point is that every time I find more evidence against materialism.

    I read from the most atheist militants
    cocky like sean carroll, Susan Blackhole, Richard Dawn -king, Steven Pinker and his wife, Patricia Churchland, Christoff Koch Giulio Tononi, Steven Laurey, Miguel Gzigiana, Jimmo Borgini, Paul Edwars, Robert Carroll, Keith Augustine and her boyfriend Martin, james Randi, Robert baker.

    While there are others, all of these that I have just mentioned are those that supposedly have the "greatest evidence for materialism" as I said the majority is based on research that even they did not do and they give an interpretation to the convenience of their theories And Make copypaste ,iironically many times you can interpret the results in favor of dualism or neutrality.

    my point is that if you read 2 books for example of Keith Augustine and cristoff koch, you have read all the arguments of "materialism" that are generally 13.

    curiously, you and the user Ian Wendell as well as other authors and experiments of the brain and physics have already denied many of these materialistic experiments even among the same "skeptics" have denied or interpreted these experiments in a different way.

    I have also noticed that these atheist books and articles often blatantly lie and defame the author with lies, as well as in their conclusions they draw many hyperbole and exaggerations about the results.

    I am looking forward to your response. And sorry for my English

    1. To be fair, both Koch and Tonini are quite open-minded as their favored theory, Integrated Information Theory (IIT), tentatively presuppose a form of panpsychism.

      I realize that Bernardo's no fan of panpsychism, but I think it's an encouraging step in the right metaphysical direction -- and scientists are free to call it a physicist theory of it helps with their cognitive dissonance!

      What's truly amazing (and encouraging) is that IIT is arguably the most popular theory of consciousness amongst neuroscientists today! I suspect that many of those scientists who support IIT are unaware of its panpsychist implications...

  8. Very nice, Bernardo. I am looking forward to your new book. Interestingly, I saw the link to this page, only a short while after leaving another on wikipedia, from which the following seemed to dovetail with some of your own speculations:

    Henology (from Greek ἕν hen, "one") refers to the philosophical account or discourse on "The One" that appears most notably in the philosophy of Plotinus. Reiner Schürmann describes it as a "metaphysics of radical transcendence" that extends beyond being and intellection. It can be contrasted with ontology, as ontology is "an account of being" whereas henology is an "account of unity.”

  9. In the writings of the Baha'i Faith, it is stated that the human brain is incapable of intellection. Said over 100 years ago. Another way to say this is that consciousness is not material. But saying that the brain resides as a material entity within mind, like everything else in the material world, is equivalent to saying the brain doesnt secrete consciousness like the liver does bile. (Although in a punny way, some minds secrete bile in the case of certain bile-o-jest materialist atheists...).
    Consciousness is spiritual and will ever be mysterious therefore. It cant be defined for at least two reasons: concepts are not attributable to it and you are unable to say that anything is like or unlike it.
    We cannot get outside of it to examine it, nor do we know anything outside of it subjectively. Therefore if you accept that it is not produced by something internally material, and also dismiss anything that cannot be experienced as non scientific, you are forced to conclude that any theories of death of consciousness after life for the individual are without merit. Life in consciousness is eternal.

  10. I just finished reading "The Idea of the World" which strikes me as one of the best renderings of idealist philosophy to come along as, especially, it solves the problem of how there can be multiple individual minds "embedded" (so to speak) in the One Mind which is "the universe and everything". And, as you suggest in this essay, it really solves the problem (I think) of how there can be multiple individual minds (ours) within the One Mind (to use Plotinus's term) with the idea of "alters" and dissociation. It's seems pretty clear to me that the world as we experience it is entirely a construction of our individual minds, synthesized from our sensory input and then projected back out onto the world as the world. But the interesting is that this "construction" is conformal to the world exactly because it is "of a piece" with it. I call the mental faculty that generates the world as we experience it "the Constructor". And I find it interesting that the same Constructor seems to create both our waking experience and the "world" as we experience it in dreams, just working with a different set of materials.

    My other notions in this connection are these. I think all versions of philosophical idealism (including that in "The Idea of the World") support two contemporary areas of research -- survival of death and psychic phenomena. That idealism remains the best scheme for explaining psychic phenomena seems fairly obvious to me so I won't go into it in detail. Survival of death, though, can be explained the following way. In our "dissociation" from the One Mind as "alters" the book explains how this is accomplished by our individualities being wrapped in a "Markov Blanket" which serves to maintain the separation. I would just argue that we are, in fact, wrapped in several "layers" of Markov blankets so that when we "throw off" the outermost Markov blanket (our body) we still remain "wrapped" in several Markov layers, the outermost one now being what is generally called the "astral body". This enables us to survive death with our individuality more or less intact. Perhaps then, ultimately, we go on to progressively shed more Markov layers as we approach ultimate reunification with the One Mind. But this is a process that takes eons and may even involve putting on successive bodily Markov blankets (reincarnation)....

  11. This sounds like a long way of explaining a philosophy that already state this, AKA Solipsism.

    You essentially described solipsism.