Ph.D. in philosophy and a scientist in some of the world's foremost scientific laboratories
Bernardo Kastrup proposes a new ontology he calls “idealism” built on panpsychism, the idea that everything in the universe contains consciousness. He solves problems with this philosophy by adding a new suggestion: The universal mind has dissociative identity disorder.
Interviewed by: Ibrahim Al-Kaltham
I think I was born a philosopher, in that I’ve always spontaneously wondered about the deeper questions, such as the nature of life, reality, and what the point of it all is. But as a child, I was exposed to electronics by my father, who was an electronics hobbyist. I witnessed the beginning of the home computer revolution in the late 70s and early 80s, and was fascinated by those machines, which could do incredible things on command. I dreamed of one day designing my own computer. And thus, having just turned 17 years old, I went to computer engineering school.
Eventually I ended up working with Artificial Intelligence (AI) and wondered what it would take to make those intelligent computers also conscious. But after a while struggling with the question, I realized that whatever I could possibly do with my design, it would have an effect only on structure and function, not inner experience. At that point I realized that I was facing an internal contradiction in my way of thinking about consciousness, and had to trace my steps back to find where I had taken a wrong turn. And I concluded that the wrong turn was my assumption that consciousness is something that can be created out of material structures in the first place; that is what was leading me to contradictions and insoluble problems. Revising that assumption in a coherent and empirically satisfying manner eventually led me to analytic idealism, and my whole life as a philosopher ever since.
That matter is primary, or fundamental; that Aristotelian logic is self-evidently correct; that consciousness—along with all our problems and suffering—ends with death; that nature, as it is in itself, is the world we see around us; that life is about success, prosperity and control; that suffering is always a bad thing; that religion is silly; and so on.
The ’analytic’ in ‘analytic idealism’ alludes to conceptual clarity, explicit and self-consistent reasoning, and empirical adequacy. These are the key values of the so-called ‘analytic’ school of philosophy, initiated in the early 20th century as an approach to philosophy distinct from the classical, so-called ‘continental’ school.
‘Physicalism’ is just the more formal term for the colloquial ‘materialism.’ Unless you are an academic philosopher busy with minutiae, they are the same thing. But naturalism is certainly something else. There is a lot of debate in academia about what naturalism really means, but to me it means the view that nature unfolds spontaneously, according to regularities of behaviour that we’ve come to call the ‘laws of physics.’ In this sense, I am a naturalist, in addition to being an idealist. I believe that nature unfolds spontaneously and regularly, not according to any deliberate plan thought-through in advance, or to whimsical intervention by an outside actor that isn’t itself part of nature. I am also a reductionist, in the sense that I believe that we can satisfactorily explain complex things in terms of simpler things. And I am a rationalist too, in the sense that I believe that the human intellect—although there are significant and inherent limitations it—is still the most reliable tool we have, to come up with a collective, shared understanding of life and nature.
First, materialism is internally contradictory: after defining matter as something entirely incommensurable with the qualities of experience, it tries—predictably unsuccessfully—to explain experience in terms of matter. Second, materialism mistakes the map for the territory: although physical quantities—such as weight in kilograms, length in meters, duration in seconds, etc.—are mere descriptions of the world we see around us, materialists propose that they precede the world and somehow give rise to the world. It’s like saying that the map of Saudi Arabia existed before Saudi Arabia, and that Saudi Arabia somehow arose from the map. Third, materialism lacks explanatory power: although experience is ultimately all we have—it’s the only pre-theoretical given of nature, everything else being theoretical abstraction—materialism fails to explain any single specific experience; therefore, in a sense it explains nothing. Fourth, materialism is inflationary, violating the principle of parsimony known as ‘Occam’s Razor’: it unnecessarily postulates—through theoretical abstraction—something distinct and independent of experience, even though such postulate is not necessary to make sense of nature. And finally, fifth, materialism is empirically inadequate: it presupposes that physical entities—such as elementary subatomic particles—have standalone existence independent of measurement or observation, for they are supposed to be the most fundamental level of reality. But as the four-decades-long series of laboratory experiments that won the Nobel Prize in physics in 2022 has shown (short of woo-woo theoretical fantasies such as multiverses and ‘super-determinism’), all physical entities in fact arise from measurement. This shows that the primary level of reality—the thing that is measured in the first place—isn’t physical, thereby refuting materialism.
There are many historical and psychological reasons for it. Materialism was first proposed during the European Enlightenment as a political tool to carve out a space for science that wasn’t controlled by the Church. Enlightenment founders, such as Denis Diderot, are on record admitting that materialism doesn’t quite work, but was needed in the fight against ecclesiastic authorities.
However, by the mid 19th century, with the bourgeoise revolution led by Charles Darwin in full swing, intellectual elites began to actually believe in materialism. Not only did that allow them to place themselves above ecclesiastic authorities on the cultural landscape, it eliminated the greatest fear humankind has had throughout its history: the fear of what we will experience after death. Materialism allowed us to believe that, however bad life is, whatever problems one has, however much one suffers, all that suffering is guaranteed to come to an end at the moment of death, for there will be no consciousness there to experience anything. This is the greatest psychological payoff of belief in materialism, which we today take entirely for granted.
In present-day culture, materialism continues because of a form of stigmergy: we all notice, based on the behaviour and status of others around us, that being a materialist is good for your social standing—it portrays you as someone intellectually brave enough to admit to the gloomy but ‘rational fact’ that the universe is dead, meaningless, and purposeless—and career prospects. This is now beginning to change—reason and evidence ultimately always win over delusion and fantasy—but it will still take a while.
Yes, it is deliberate. I try not to comment on things I don’t know or understand enough to speak with great confidence about. I don’t want to misrepresent anyone or any theory. I also don’t want to hijack the cultural cachet of other people, institutions, or ideas for the benefit of my own position. That’s why I shy away from linking analytic idealism to other historical instances of idealism, unless I know, down to excruciating detail, what I am talking about. I don’t want to be accused of co-opting anything; certainly not the world’s great religions.
That said, I am entirely aware—and quick to admit—that nothing I am proposing is truly new. In all likelihood, idealism began in the Indus Valley over 3,500 years ago and is today symbolically embedded in many religions and traditional approaches to philosophy. I am keenly aware that the only merit I may perhaps have is to have put it in modern language, using modern analogies, and appealing to modern intellectual values; but not originality.
There are many formulations of idealism, some coherent, some incoherent or even untenable. Berkeleyan idealism, for instance, isn’t tenable. There are also overwhelming levels of misunderstanding of idealism, even—particularly—in academia. Today, for instance, the supposedly highest academic authority in Schopenhauerian idealism—the man who edits new translations of Schopenhauer’s works—hasn’t understood the first thing about Schopenhauer’s metaphysics. It’s a disgrace.
When a particular metaphysics—such as materialism—comes to dominate a culture, it becomes nearly impossible for most people to interpret other metaphysical proposals correctly; for they see everything through materialist ‘lenses,’ so to speak. Even my own formulation, analytic idealism, is often drastically misinterpreted by academics. For instance, many academics think that idealism rejects the notion of an external, objective reality out there, beyond our individual minds. They do so because they instinctively assume that mind is something that happens only inside the nervous system of living creatures. But this latter point is an assumption of materialism, which is the very point in contention! One cannot refute idealism by assuming materialism; yet many attempt to do just that.
Analytic idealism does not reject the self-evident fact of a world out there, beyond our individual minds. Instead, it acknowledges that the world would still be there even if we were not around to talk about it; it acknowledges that, just as my thoughts are outside your individual mind, the world is outside both of our individual minds. Yet, according to analytic idealism, the world out there is still mental, even though not constituted by our mentation; just as my thoughts are still mental, despite being outside and independent of your mentation.
My thoughts are external and objective from your perspective. In exactly the same way, the mentation that constitutes nature at large is external and objective from our perspectives, presenting itself to us—through our five senses—in the form that we colloquially refer to as ‘matter.’ But most people, even academics, are unable to think of mind as a substrate that can exist outside the nervous systems of living creatures—a materialist prejudice—so to them idealism equates solipsism, with the latter being untenable. As a result, they are unable to evaluate idealism fairly, without injecting their own prejudices into it and thereby constructing a straw-man. This is why it is so difficult to get the message across today, and why many think they reject idealism when, in fact, all they are rejecting is their own self-constructed misunderstanding of idealism.
Idealism, when correctly formulated and understood, is simply the most plausible—and, arguably, the only tenable—metaphysical hypothesis on the table today, regardless of all the misunderstandings. The problem that caused the early luminaries of analytic philosophy—such as Russell and Wittgenstein—to reject German Idealism was that philosophers often used muddled language in their arguments, lacking conceptual clarity and precision. And they had a point there. Schopenhauer, for instance, subtly changes the meaning he attributes to certain terms in different segments of his argument, which opens him up to the charge that he is being inconsistent or self-contradictory. But the inability of past idealist philosophers to write with absolute clarity and consistency doesn’t entail or imply that idealism itself—when correctly formulated—is wrong. It isn’t.
No. Under analytic idealism, what we colloquially refer to as ‘matter’—that is, the contents of perception, the things we see, hear, touch, smell, and taste—is what mental processes dissociated from us look like when observed from across a dissociative boundary. In simpler words, the material brain is what someone’s conscious inner life looks like when observed from the outside; it is the extrinsic image or appearance of someone’s conscious inner life. Matter—all matter, not only that making up the brain—is what mental processes look like when observed from an external vantage point. Therefore, obviously patterns of brain activity should correlate with inner experience, for they are what inner experience looks like when observed from the outside.
There are many things that are not seriously investigated by science today because, according to the assumptions of the metaphysics of materialism, they must be impossible. Telepathy is one example: low levels of telepathy are experienced by most people many times during their lives. Yet, no serious grant is given to scientists to try to understand and model the phenomenon so to perhaps leverage it, despite the obvious practical applications of telepathy.
Also, our understanding of health is coloured by materialist prejudices, which portray the body as a kind of mechanism. And so doctors today are trained like car mechanics. What we lose in the process is the ability of effecting a cure by the very personal presence of the doctor—their ‘bedside manners,’ so to speak—which was the greatest power doctors had up until the late 19th century. We also neglect deliberately using the so-called ‘placebo effect’, chucking it down, instead, to a mere curiosity. Finally, we fail to use the power of talk therapy in addressing physical conditions such as diabetes, cancer, and even skin warts, despite admittedly limited but objective evidence for effective results. Entirely new horizons would open up to medicine under an idealist perspective, for doctors would understand that all illnesses, including very physical ones such as virus-caused skin warts, are external appearances of deeply internalized psychological dynamics, personal and trans-personal.
At a broader level, materialism tells us that nature is essentially dead, mechanistic, meaningless, and purposeless. Under idealism, on the other hand, physical nature is just a superficial appearance of a deeper, mental, living reality. The world is a book to be read and interpreted, for all physical entities are but symbols pointing to something beyond themselves. Life acquires a new significance and meaning, for if living organisms are but dissociated complexes of a universal mind, then death means merely the end of the dissociation. At the moment of death, all the experiences and insights acquired during life are then released into a broader cognitive context: the mind of nature itself. All those hard-earned insights and lessons will serve an ultimate purpose, not be lost to oblivion, as materialists would have us believe. Moreover, the kinship across human beings goes much deeper than materialism would acknowledge, for different people are but different dissociated complexes of one and the same mind. As religions have taught for centuries and millennia, we all really are siblings of one another; in fact, we are one another. Understanding this as reality, not just comforting religious romanticism, can literally change the world.
You are phenomenally conscious if you have an experience. You are meta-conscious if, in addition to having the experience, you also know that you have the experience. This extra knowledge doesn’t come automatically. For instance, most of the time you experience your breathing, but often not being aware that you are breathing. Breathing is always conscious, but not always meta-conscious. Other experiences are never meta-conscious, as many therapists will tell you. Moreover, some experiences can be dissociated from the executive ego: they are experienced by a segment of our minds that isn’t the segment capable of language; therefore, we cannot report those dissociated experiences even to ourselves; we cannot tell ourselves, in thought, that we are having those experiences, even though we are having them. Traumas, when repressed, often manifest in this manner.
What Freud and Jung referred to as the ‘unconscious’ is a segment of the mind that is, in fact, phenomenally conscious—they used the term ‘psychic’ to refer to this—but either isn’t meta-conscious or is dissociated from the executive ego. Current research, such as the emerging ‘no-report paradigm’ of neuroscience, confirms this.
Recently we’ve also learned, for instance, that sleeping people are experiencing things even when they are not dreaming. They experience abstract thoughts, subliminal perceptions, or even egoless states that do not entail the immersive imagery of dreams. Teenagers worldwide have also discovered that, when you pass out because of partial strangulation, you can have fantastic experiences akin to psychedelic trances, during the period in which you are unresponsive. They induce these experiences with the dangerous and non-advisable ‘chocking game.’ In other words, not even when we pass out do we actually become phenomenally unconscious. The same goes for anaesthesia: experienced anaesthesiologists know that, although patients don’t experience the operation itself—or the associated pain—during narcosis, they may very well have some other forms of inner experience. They simply do not remember it when they wake up, because the anaesthesia cocktail contains a drug that blocks the formation of memory pathways. I could go on and on. Pilots who pass out during G-force-induced loss of ‘consciousness’—G-LOC—report ‘memorable dreams’ when they wake up. People who practice hyperventilation to the point of passing out also report transformative experiences. And so on. It would appear that we are never phenomenally unconscious; we simply cannot remember or report certain past experiences.
I first came across Jung when I was about 14 years old and encountered a funny book called the ‘I Ching.’ Jung had written the preface for that book. If not for what he explained in the preface, I would have taken the book to be just a silly oracle. But Jung unlocked a rational thread to validate the book that I never forgot, and which unfolded into many new horizons and vistas amenable to rational investigation in my own mind. It’s difficult for me to quantify Jung’s influence on me, beyond saying that it has been massive. So much of what I think today—so much of how I see the world—has probably been influenced by him since so early on, that even I wouldn’t know. Jung, to me, has been the link between myself and Schopenhauer; he kept the chain linked together during the dark ages of logical positivism and behaviourism in the 20th century, a major achievement.
I am currently writing two books. One is a grand summary of Analytic Idealism, meant for a general audience. The other will contain some personal reflections on Western philosophy and values. My priority, however, is running Essentia Foundation (www.essentiafoundation.org), which seeks to close a gap in the media by articulating scientific, analytic arguments for Idealism.