GUEST ESSAY: Eben Alexander's review of 'The Idea of the World'

By Eben Alexander

This is a review of The Idea of the World: A Multi-disciplinary Argument for the Mental Nature of Reality, by Bernardo Kastrup. Hampshire, UK: Iff Books, 2019.

Tremendous tension is building in the world of neuroscience over the relationship between mind and brain -- just what is the true nature of consciousness? A building consilience from the fields of psychology, physics and neuroscience supports the primacy of consciousness in the universe, or a top-down organizing principle at the heart of all reality. One of the strongest new elements of this bridge comes from the physics perspective of Bernardo Kastrup in support of the reality of ontological or metaphysical idealism. His revolutionary and insightful book, The Idea of the World, connects the dots brilliantly through a series of masterfully-woven articles, making an elegant case for the advantages of idealism over physicalism, especially in the face of contextuality in quantum physics, the ‘hard problem’ of consciousness, and the subject combination problem in philosophy of mind. The result is a must-read book for anyone seriously interested in the modern neuroscience of consciousness, and its broad implications for humanity. Bravo, Bernardo!

Eben Alexander, MD, Neurosurgeon, author of Proof of Heaven, The Map of Heaven and Living in a Mindful Universe.
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The dawn of a post-materialist academic worldview

Since the ascendence of materialism in academia during the Enlightenment, no other theory of the essential nature of reality has truly been taken seriously in academic circles. Implicitly, to be an academic has, since then, presupposed a professional materialist stanceregardless of what one's private views might be.

Since the end of the 20th century, constitutive panpsychism and property dualism have garnered some modest momentum in academia. However, these ontologies are basically extensions of materialism: they add irreducible mental properties to what is essentially the same old objective substrate. Their modest level of success, instead of foreshadowing a significant shift in our worldview, in fact betrays the formidable inertia of the latter: although nobody has ever been able to articulate how physical quantities—such as mass, charge, momentum—could possibly explain the qualities of experience, in lieu of discarding the untenable concept of objective matter we've grudgingly resorted to applying bandages to it. The result is a Frankenstein monster whose sole appeal is to perpetuate a clumsy error: that of imagining an objective material world, outside and independent of mentation, to begin with. Future generations will look upon this embarrassing charade with merciless scorn.

Throughout the two or three centuries of materialist hegemony in academia, religious and spiritual movements have competed for the hearts and minds of ordinary people. New Age, non-dualism, Buddhism, and a host of other related worldviews have certainly achieved a degree of influence in our culture. However, their acknowledgment in academia is limited to some of their practical applications, such as e.g. helping to relieve stress. The metaphysics underlying these spiritual traditions, however, has achieved no recognition in academia, and often for good reasons: as much as their appeal to feeling, intuition and direct experience is legitimate when it comes to ordinary people, in academia different rules and standards apply.

I've bitten the bullet fully and made my case according to the exact same rulebook and value-system that underpins the case for materialism. The goal has been to win the duel using the weapons chosen by the opposition.

Having initially written six books meant for ordinary people, over the past three years I've focused on academia instead. My hope has been to legitimize and promote idealism—the view that objective matter doesn't actually exist, reality consisting purely of excitations of transpersonal consciousness—as a viable and coherent worldview, more tenable than materialism itself. I've subjected myself to the rules of the academic game, rigorously arguing on the basis of logic, parsimony, coherence and evidence. I've made no appeals to anything that could be construed as a handwaving excuse for lack of substance or rigor. I've bitten the bullet fully and made my case according to the exact same rulebook and value-system that underpins the case for materialism. The goal has been to win the duel using the weapons chosen by the opposition.

The result of this effort is The Idea of the Worlda book that collects a number of academic papers I've published in leading peer-reviewed journals. Although the peer review process has often been critical—sometimes outright unfair—the force of my argument has prevailed. Besides these articles, the book is enhanced by many new chapters meant to weave the different papers together into a coherent, complete, accessible argument for idealism; an argument that, although targeted at academia, can be understood by any educated person with a bit of patience.

The Idea of the World is probably the first and only academically-legitimized, uncompromising articulation of idealism since Hegel.

Academia may be plagued by skewed metaphysical intuitions, but it has one thing going for it: as long as you play the game by their rules, if your case is strong it will not be dismissed. Because of this kind of honesty, and based on the strength of my case according to their own value-system, my effort has met with success in academia.

The Idea of the World is perhaps the first and only academically-legitimized, uncompromising articulation of idealism since Hegel. None of the truly non-materialist ontologies discussed today has—insofar as I am aware of—received comparable treatment in terms of rigor and completeness. Their proponents usually don't even bother to engage in the academic game of logic, coherence and evidence, limiting themselves to vague appeals to feeling and intuition. This, I believe, is precisely the reason why these non-materialist views continue to be consigned to the fringes of our culture. It is also the reason why vulgar and loud proponents of materialism—who, while lacking basic understanding of materialism itself, often feel childishly emboldened by the academic hegemony of the view they purport to endorse—ridicule the followers of non-materialist views.
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But things may have begun to change: we now see a worldview thoroughly and bluntly antithetical to materialism being taken seriously in academia; a worldview legitimized by the very rules and values that materialism relies on. I say so not only because of the dozen peer-reviewed academic papers that underpin this worldview, but also for the fact that The Idea of the World has a very special companion volume.

This companion volume is a doctoral dissertation I am going to publicly defend at the end of April at Radboud University Nijmegen, The Netherlands' best classical university according to the most recent polls, and one of Europe's best. The dissertation itself has already been unanimously approved by an academic committee (you can freely download it here and here), only the formalisms of the defense still pending. If successful, this will be my second doctorate, 18 years—almost to the day—after my first one.

Materialism has hidden behind the argument that no alternative metaphysics has ever passed the stringent tests of coherence, rigor and empirical grounding reigning in academia. But this is no longer the case.

My doctoral dissertation is not as complete as the book; for instance, it doesn't cover the idealist interpretation of quantum mechanics that constitutes one of the core parts of the book. It is also more technical and less accessible to a general readership, lacking the "preamble" chapters that make the book much more approachable. Moreover, because it is meant only for academics, the dissertation uses more jargon and presupposes more technical background. So it doesn't replace the book. But it surely reinforces it, lending it yet more legitimacy and credibility. After all, if the admittedly polemical ideas discussed in the book are well substantiated enough to grant me a second Ph.D., it becomes very difficult to dismiss them.

Materialism has hidden behind the argument that no alternative metaphysics has ever passed the stringent tests of coherence, rigor and empirical grounding reigning in academia. But this is no longer the case. So if committed materialists have ever dismissed your non-materialist views on the basis of this argument, you can now give them a copy of The Idea of the World, perhaps accompanied by a copy of my doctoral dissertation. Show them how out of date they are.

It is my hope that this book, and its accompanying doctoral thesis, will give you ammunition to advance your views on the basis of the same set of values, and according to the same rules of argument, which supposedly privilege materialism. Please use it liberally and help get the word out. We may be on the cusp of significant change; on the verge of consigning materialism to the waste bin of history (it isn't soon enough). However, in the era of social media, this change depends on you, individually. The Idea of the World is the weapon I offer you. It's up to you to shoot with it.

GUEST ESSAY: The idealistic model

By Adur Alkain

(This is a guest essay submitted to the Metaphysical Speculations Discussion Forum, reviewed and commented on by forum members. The opinions expressed in the essay are those of its author. For my own views on the subject of this essay, see my book The Idea of the World and a Scientific American summary of one of the book's core contentions.)

Source: Wikipedia.
I’m proposing an idealistic interpretation of quantum mechanics. This is not an original idea, but my purpose is to formulate it in a clear, simple way. This is the essential outline:

  1. There is no “physical world” (understood as a world of objects that exist outside observation). There is only observation.
  2. Quantum mechanics doesn’t describe a hypothetical world of very small objects (subatomic particles, waves, fields, etc.). Quantum mechanics describes the probabilities of future observations.
  3. Observation can be defined as a special modality of conscious experience that is bound by the laws of physics.
  4. The laws of physics are the laws of observation.

Please note that this idealistic interpretation is slightly different than the traditional “consciousness causes collapse” interpretation. It is not that consciousness somehow influences the physical world. There is no physical world. There is only consciousness.

According to this interpretation, all observers see and experience the same world because they all are bound by the same laws of observation, the laws of physics

This interpretation is also distinct from panpsychism. It is not that “subatomic particles” like electrons or quarks have minds, or some kind of mental properties. There are no subatomic particles. Quarks and electrons are nothing but mental constructs derived from an inaccurate interpretation of what the laws of physics (the laws of observation) actually say about the world. In other words, quarks and electrons only exist in human minds as vague mental concepts, or in the virtual world of the laws of physics as mathematical abstractions.

In my understanding, this very simple idea solves all the apparent paradoxes and problems of quantum mechanics, like the measurement problem, wave-particle duality, etc. It also solves the main objection that has been traditionally made to philosophical idealism: the fact that all observers seem to perceive the same world. According to this interpretation, all observers see and experience the same world because they all are bound by the same laws of observation, the laws of physics.

Ultimately, the reason why we all perceive the same world is that we all are “entangled”. In quantum mechanics, the moment a system (it could be a single electron, or a complex observer) interacts with another system, both systems get entangled. That means that we all are entangled. Maybe I never interacted with you, but I surely interacted with somebody that interacted with somebody that interacted with somebody... that interacted with you. That's why we see the same moon.

In other words, the laws of quantum mechanics apply to the whole physical universe as a unified system, including all observers. There is only one wave function. The idea is that a single wave function describes in principle the whole universe.

The primacy of the fundamental laws of physics precludes solipsism.

Three levels of reality

To illustrate the implications of this idealistic interpretation, I will comment on Einstein’s famous objection (originally directed at the Copenhagen interpretation): “Do you really think the moon isn’t there if you aren’t looking at it?”

If we look closely at the word “moon”, we can recognize that it refers to three different realities:

  1. The observed moon: the moon as it appears to an actual observer.
  2. The mental moon: the moon as a thought or mental concept.
  3. The physical moon: the result of the physical laws that predict the probabilities of the moon being observed by any possible observer at any given point in spacetime.

We can call these three distinct realities moon1, moon2 and moon3. In answer to Einstein’s question, we can say that moon1 only exists when it is being observed by at least one conscious observer, moon2 exists independently of any observation, but only in our minds, and moon3 exists in the virtual realm of the fundamental laws of physics, the laws of observation. This moon3 or “physical moon” exist only as pure potentiality (the probabilities of moon1 occurring), but its existence is as reliable and objective as the hypothetical “material moon” postulated by materialism. There is no added “fuzziness” in this interpretation. All the known laws of physics stay in place.

If we apply the same analysis to “elementary particles”, we find a slightly different result. Let’s take a quark, for example. We can see that:

  1. quark1 doesn’t exist as such: quarks can’t be observed directly; they can only be “detected” through a complex process of applying mathematical calculations to actual observations (under very specific conditions of measurement).
  2. quark2 (“quark” as a mental concept) doesn’t exist as such, either; it is not possible for the human mind to have a clear and consistent concept of such a thing as a “quark”. Like electrons and all other “elementary particles”, quarks are sometimes thought of as particles, sometimes as waves, sometimes as fields, etc.
  3. quark3 (“quark” as defined by the laws of physics) is the only real meaning of the term “quark”. Quarks (like all other “particles”) are nothing but mathematical abstractions, described in the standard model of particle physics.

Thus, we can distinguish three distinct levels of reality:

Level 1 is the level of observation. This is the “classical world”, the world that we perceive. It doesn’t exist outside our observation. Therefore, it is subjective. On this level, each observer inhabits a different world (seen and experienced from a particular location and perspective). But all those worlds are connected through entanglement, and therefore are consistent with each other (all observers are bound by the same laws of observation, the same wave function.)

Level 2 is the level of thought. This is the world we create in our thoughts. It can take the form of pure imagination and fantasy, or the form of a mental model based on observation, the mental model of a hypothetical world that exists “out there”.

Level 3 is the level of pure potentiality and mathematical abstraction. This is the world of the laws of physics, the laws that describe the probabilities of observation. It is an objective world, but it only exists in virtuality.

Many scientists tend to confuse these three levels, which results in all kinds of misunderstandings.

We can postulate the existence of a more fundamental level of reality, level 0. This would be the level of Platonic ideas and of pure consciousness or “mind-at-large”. We can speculate that, from the point of view of mind-at-large, all the multiple worlds of level 1 appear as unified into one. This would be an objective, unified, real world, the sum of all observations. In this view, individual observers could be understood as the sense organs of mind-at-large. But these metaphysical speculations lie outside the realm of physics, and therefore outside the scope of the present essay. Physics deals solely with the three levels of reality described above.

Implications of indeterminism

According to this interpretation, the laws of quantum mechanics are fundamentally indeterministic and probabilistic. This indeterminism leaves open the question of what “decides” the result of any given quantum-level event (collapse of the wave function). I will venture to suggest two opposed and verifiable hypotheses:

  • the stochastic hypothesis: the results of quantum-level events are purely random, strictly obeying the probabilities described by the wave function.
  • the volitional hypothesis: an inherent quality of reality that we can tentatively name “volition”, or “will”, decides the outcome of quantum-level events, within the range of probabilities described by the wave function.

This could be tested by repeating a quantum-level experiment as many times as possible, while the experimenters-observers tried to influence the result with their “will”. For example, a very simple system with two possible outcomes of 50%-50% probability should give results with a 50-50 distribution, according to the stochastic hypothesis. A statistically significant deviation from this expected distribution would support the volitional hypothesis. A 50-50 distribution would not necessarily invalidate this hypothesis, though. Volition, or will, could be a property of the underlying reality (mind-at-large), not accessible to individual observers.

Copyright © 2018 by Adur Alkain. Published with permission.