Bernardo Kastrup is garnering attention with his revival of Metaphysical Idealism, especially among some Christian thinkers, and several of whom have appeared in conversation on this channel. This attention is partially due to surprise: Metaphysical Idealism has been out of favor for quite some time and bucks a major trend in philosophy since the late 19th Century – the abandonment of Metaphysics, proclaimed by both Wittgenstein and Heidegger among many others. Then out of nowhere, Kastrup gives us a 21st Century update grounded in modern physics and neuroscience.
I agree with much of Kastrup’s diagnosis of the spiritual malaise and the poverty of a world interpreted within the constraints of objective reductionism. I also agree with his description of the representational nature of our perceived world, seemingly drawn from Kant via Schopenhauer and its modern neuroscientific update from practitioners such as Donald Hoffman. In the end, though, I still have to reject his relapse into metaphysics and the implications of his metaphysical leap.
Craig Reed, an interesting Christian thinker in his own right and a recent guest on this channel, interviewed Kastrup in a two and a half hour livestream on his channel, to which I have linked below. Again, while I don’t share Craig’s metaphysical speculations, including any sort of theism, we do overlap to a surprising degree on how we interpret the world. His might be the most interesting of the interviews I’ve seen of Kastrup as Craig got him to clarify his theist beliefs inherent in his metaphysics. By the way, Craig, The Doors of Perception comes from a poem by the unfathomably great poet, William Blake, in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell. He was a metaphysical Christian whose insights align well with yours. You will deeply appreciate him.
In this video I will comment on the Kastrup interview via about 19 minutes of cuts winnowed down from the two and a half hour conversation which I think present the essence of Kastrup’s thought. I have broken this into three sections: Argument, Religion, and Metaphor.
In the video, Kastrup advances two separate arguments for Metaphysical Idealism: Argument from Physics; and Argument from Psychedelics. He prefaces the the first of these, the argument from physics, with a brief explanation of his concept:
He starts out with a framework familiar to anyone with knowledge of 20th century thought, especially that of Martin Heidegger and his distinction of ontic and ontological. Objective scientific reductionism is a superficial description of measure and relationship of objects that describes how something works but in the process closes off what things actually are. It creates a groundless existence that brought us to the point where we have forgotten what it is to have an authentic relation with the world in itself. The difference is Heidegger resists all metaphysical speculation and refers to this authentic ground of reality as Being – an implicitly physical metaphor meaning the physical world as it is. This is in keeping with his contention (as well as Wittgenstein’s) that metaphysical speculation is the great error running through the last 2500 years of Western thought. For both, Mystery (das Mystische) shrouds the true ground, but also calls to us. Our task was to experience this mystery, express poetically what was revealed, or in Wittgenstein’s case, merely point to it, and remain silent about what remains hidden. Kastrup, in contrast, makes the metaphysical leap of claiming the ground of reality is a transpersonal mind. Kastrup transforms the problem of inauthenticity stemming from epistemological reduction of Being into materialism vs. Idealism. By defining the objective world of representation as material, by definition the world beyond representation – the World-in-itself becomes immaterial mind. We’ll return to that transformation later in the discussion.
He then presents the first of his arguments – the argument from physics:
His claim is that materialism, which he equates with physicalism, is refuted by entanglement in that mere observation should not change the properties of physical entities, but since it does he concludes that mind is more elemental than the physical entities. This makes some assumptions that are perhaps not warranted. The first of these is that entanglement requires consciousness, rather than consciousness might be just one occurrence of entanglement. We cannot determine that because any entanglement we can know necessarily involves consciousness as we entangle with the measurement apparatus and thus the entire entangled system. Any entanglement we can know of necessarily involves our consciousness, but we can know nothing of entanglement beyond that.
The second is the assumption that consciousness is not itself physical, perhaps as a wave or quantum function. We are beginning to see inquiry into quantum mind by persons as serious as Roger Penrose. It very well could turn out that physicality is primary and consciousness a result of entangling with a subsystem.
The third assumption is that entities have properties. A serious counter to that would be Carlo Rovelli’s Relational Interpretation in that everything we know is a perceived mini-system of relationships co-responsible for any emergent perceived properties. There are no innate properties, but rather everything is relationship.
Next is the argument from Psychedelics. I’ll interject comments at several point during this argument
I could not agree more. This points to the poverty and superficiality of analytic philosophy, which is really just one branch of objective reductionism and forgetfulness of Being. I experienced LSD once as a teenager and psilocybin twice as an adult, and I find Kastrup’s description interesting and accurate. Without a psychedelic experience we cannot really appreciate how arbitrary, thin, and reductive our everyday experience is. He goes on to describe how our habitual patterns dissolve, our perception widens and logic falls away as we appreciate the a-rational nature of reality. We literally transcend our constructed sense of self and reconnect to something far more powerful and mysterious, and one which does, as Kastrup says, lead to increased empathy, understanding, and tolerance, and I would dare add love. I take these as valuable clues to the nature of Being and humanity, and perhaps the guide that directs our refinement of the moral sense.
From this description of the experience he proceeds to tell us how he deduces transcendent mind.
In responding to someone convinced he had literally travelled to the Pleiades, Kastrup states he knows he didn’t actually go anywhere because he knows that he was laying on his bed with his eyes closed. This appears to me as an appeal to physicality to establish reality from hallucination, and tends to undermine his reduction of everything to mind. If there were not the physicality of his body and bed, there would be no distinction between the two experiences, Yet he concludes: “If a psychedelic trip is eminently and unquestionably mental, can feel much much more real than this right now…If that was mental and it felt more real than this, then this is mental too.”
I wouldn’t deny that the trip is a mental experience, but he had already distinguished between a mental hallucination and a mental experience of the physical by appeal to physicality. I would describe the illusion of spacemen from the Pleiades as merely the awareness of neural connections unconstrained by the Default Mode Network, which is a very different process from sensed experience. “Filters not completely taken away, but compromised.” Put another way, the real issue at play is reductive experience versus non-reductive experience rather material representation versus immaterial mind. A non-hallucinatory experience is a conscious connection to a real event received through the sense, but we can reduce it through the mediation of objectification or we can more fully become conscious of the experience through esthetic means – art or poetry for example. But when authentic, is is something revealed through the senses grounded in the physical. Psychedelics depress our objectification. He is right that we get a taste of the thing in itself, but that is a more immediate nonreductive experience of this thing. The further step of concluding it is experience of a mind is a metaphorical interpretation of that experience. And itself reductive.
He then turns to neuroscience to support his argument from psychedelics:
This almost seems like he is trying to separate mind from brain in a return to duality, rather than brain being the objectification of mind. If brain were our objectification we would expect it to mirror the activity of the mind, much like his metaphor of tears objectifying sadness.
There is a false assumption that materiality should increase brain activity. There is a fair degree of research that indeed shows some reduction of brain activity, but that reduction appears to center on the Default Mode Network, which acts like the filter he describes. It regulates what enters our consciousness by filtering connections according to patterns, expectations, and preconceptions. The reduction of the DMN results in what some call “entropic brain”. Having a congenitally slightly depressed DMN myself, I have first hand experience of entropic brain. This entropic experience is not really increased excitement, but the failure to order existing random neural connections. It is nothing like “the brain going to sleep”, but more like a napping DMN.
For me, the most interesting aspect of Craig’s interview was getting Kastrup to clarify his theism and call for religion. Somewhat incongruously, he starts off by equating mind at large with Schopenhauer’s concept of Will.
Schopenhauer adopted most of Kant’s representational epistemology, only changing the categories from Kant’s 12 to the one category of Causality. His one important innovation was reversing Kant’s metaphysical idea of Will as Pure Reason and God into the elemental force of all physical reality. It was an important step along the way for the two dominant philosophical trends of the 19th and 20th centuries: Eradication of metaphysics and ascendency of esthetic thought over rational objectification. Nietzsche was later to make much of this, which in turn Heidegger refined in the 20th Century.
For Schopenhauer, and later Nietzsche, Will is the thing-in-itself, but disconnected from Reason, which was purely subjectively mental. It is arational and the most powerful and elemental force. It is described by Robert Wicks in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy as:
“frightening and pandemonic: he maintains that the world as it is in itself (again, sometimes adding “for us”) is an endless striving and blind impulse with no end in view, devoid of knowledge, lawless, absolutely free, entirely self-determining and almighty.”
(N.B: It could be Wicks to whom Kastrup refers later in the interview as the leading Schopenhauer scholar who Kastrup believes in actuality understands nothing about Schopenhauer. I’ll just say that in my own careful study of Schopenhauer I find Wicks’ quote above to be accurate.)
Schopenhauer thus turns the worldview upside down, and reality is physical, threatening, and randomly determined by an irrepressible force acting solely out of its own nature. Metaphysics is now merely a subjective idea, and along with that, any notion of a rational god.
We will see later that Kastrup indeed accepts the indeterminate nature of the world in itself acting simply out of its own nature, but projects onto this a mind as god. We should note that this is an important contradiction to Schopenhauer’s Will as physical and mindless striving from its own nature. In effect, Kastrup seeks to reinstate the very metaphysics that Schopenhauer had played a role in overturning.
Craig then leads Kastrup to explicitly equate mind at large to god:
Kastrup, I think rightly, sees the waning of religion as connected to the spiritual poverty that characterizes our existence since Nietzsche. But I believe he fails to consider the cause of that waning. The Enlightenment exposed the errors and unreliability of Christianity and thereby spread doubt. It resulted in a rejection of religion and an embrace of objective representational truth, which without a replacement disconnected humanity from an experience of world in itself. Nietzsche deeply appreciated this crisis as the Madman in Aphorism 125 of the Gay Science bemoans the ensuing vertigo overtaking the uprooted world and asks who will be strong enough to find a more authentic and true ground of morality and truth?
Heidegger further develops this time of vertigo as destitution, taken from a line from Friedrich Hölderlin’s Elegie Brot und Wein: und wozu Dichter in dürftiger Zeit? What are poets for in destitute time? The are for bringing forth the revelations of Being. Authentic reconnection of the world in itself through esthetic experience. Until then, we continue in our uprooted state. Or as Heidegger put it, paraphrasing from Hölderlins poem: We come to late for the gods, and too early for Being, whose just begun poem is man. We’ll return to this later in the video.
Kastrup then characterizes true religion as a form of very deep philosophy. If it were presented as such, I could admit some value, but it claims absolute truth upon which your life and afterlife depend. Dogma ends any philosophical inquiry.
I see two elements of religion that I think Kastrup naively fails to take into account: fear and ecstasy. He focuses solely on the ecstatic element, which is a search for and reverence of the holy. We see this in Craig’s example of the Cologne Cathedral, in which I personally have experienced the awe of the mystery of Being. That mystery is at the core of all search for authenticity, be it as mystical aspects of religion, or the arts as esthetic connection to Being. The interpretations of that experience are what differ, but not what is experienced – as Kastrup himself later attests.
Fear, however, is the other element of religion, and arose prehistorically out of man’s feeling of impotence in the face of overwhelming and deadly forces of nature. The response was to project gods who could be appeased for protection. This appeasement required worship and obeisance, and those who failed to do so endangered the entire community. As the ecstatic element was mystery of the holy, the element of fear centers on the Law. It is out of fear that dogma emerges, and from its law emerges intolerance and cruelty.
Kastrup praises the fervor of the Muslim while dismissing the jihadist. In religion, the two are inseparable and inform each other. Much better that we move forward and not relapse into what we have already for urgent reason rejected.
Kastrup then gives an Idealist interpretation of sadness:
There are other possible interpretations. Sadness could also be thought of as a part of the essence of Will in the Schopenhauerian sense that we experience esthetically. Or as the opposite of Will as our experience of denying Will, as Nietzsche’s Zarathustra saw it. It need not be a thought that is being represented. Being in itself has no weight or measure, which exist only in objective representation, but that doesn’t mean that it is mental. Quantum Field Theory suggests simply waves of differing oscillations. Again, I see Kastrup making a non-compelling metaphysical leap. It also seems at odds with his earlier example of brain versus mind in psychedelic experience, where he portrays a disconnection between the overly-rich experience of mind with the depressed brain. In that case the brain would be the opposite of the objectification of the mental reality.
We will end this section on Religion with the inevitable suggestion of life after death:
“In life we observe the world, in death we become the world. We interact with the world through direct acquaintance.”
What is the “we” at that point? If we lose our individuated experiences, and the metaphors and narratives that bind them together, what remains? Losing dissociation would mean our annihilation. We could not directly interact with mind at large because we would simply be absorbed bits of mind.
In the end, all metaphysical speculation is metaphor, and all metaphors eventually break down.
While I would disagree on when literal meaning became privileged over metaphor, Kastrup is here bringing up a crucial point. Metaphor is elemental to understanding and prior to literal meaning. I would go further and say it necessarily persists as elemental, even if not acknowledged. Science, and especially physics since Newton, has proudly claimed to speak and conceive in the language of mathematics. Yet it always reverts to metaphor. This is what underlies Thomas Kuhn’s concept of paradigm, and as he demonstrated, they always break down at some point and require a paradigm shift – i.e. new metaphor.
Scientific metaphor and poetic (or philosophical) metaphor differ in direction and intent. Science uses a common word to simplify the understanding of something that is either complicated, or even transcendent. It is essentially reductive. We talk of electron clouds or genetic code, although no such actual cloud or code exists, to create a concept of something beyond the conceivable. Poetic metaphor, on the other hand, uses common words to point toward and presence that which cannot be directly grasped. It is essentially transcendent. Think of the last verse of Bob Dylan’s All Along the Watchtower, where the growl of the wildcat, the two approaching riders, and the howling wind, with their profound associations, give a chilling experience of an undefinable approaching apocalypse.
But transcending what? Confined within a metaphysical framework, transcendence is supposed to transport us from the physical world to an immaterial world. The genius of late 19th and early 20th century thought, however, from more authentic thinkers clarifies transcendence to be removing Kastrup’s “dashboard”; i.e. transcending reductionist objectification to nonreductively, and in an unmediated way, experience Being itself. This is the re-establishment of the primacy of esthetic thought – an overturning of Enlightenment rational objectivism. And even more remotely, returning Being to A is A – the restoration of logos.
The true transcendence turns out to be, ironically, the overcoming of metaphysics itself. All metaphysics is reductive and all reductionism is metaphysical. As Heidegger explained in “The Question of Technology”, metaphysics began when logos became logic. When A is A became A=A, which obliterated Being inherent in the physical thing and exported it to an imaginary Ideal realm; leaving us with an empty equivalency in our perceived world.
This underlies the control which Kastrup deplores. Metaphysics has turned the world of mystery to one of practical objectification: the world interpreted technologically.
I would slightly disagree with my friend Craig here and say that it is the authentic way of interpreting reality. He and I have discussed similar experiences as musicians of letting the waves play through us . Heidegger talks of poetry as Being speaking through man, This is the birthing of transcendent metaphor or music. But we need not equate it with religion, despite its essential action of revelation, grounding, and inspiring awe and reverence.
But Western religion shares the same metaphysics as technology, and will from here on appear false. My suggestion is to recognize the correctness but incompleteness of technological interpretation while reconnecting non-metaphysically to world in itself with our innate capacity for esthetic knowledge. As Friedrich Hölderlin wrote:
Voll Verdienst, doch dichterisch wohnet der Mensch auf dieser Erde.
That is exactly right, and in fact pointing is the metaphor Wittgenstein used when he renounced analytic philosophy. Rejecting all metaphysics and endlessly meaningless discussion of the finger, he argued the only legitimate role left to philosophy was to point at things presented to us by the mystery. All dogmatic beliefs and systems are speaking where we cannot. He and Heidegger both saw that as a desecration of the holiness or mystery of Being, which we are not equipped to grasp. Talk of gods, or metaphysical systems is to desecrate through reductive dogmatism. Our only authentic path forward is to observe, experience, and point through transcendent metaphor. We are responsible for not allowing our limited concepts to reduce, distort, or obscure this mystery, but rather hold tight to the experience itself.
He adds: “But that something else is also experiential in nature.” If experience is experience of something else, and we are experiencing elementary experiential mind, what is that mind experiencing? Again, all metaphors ultimately break down, and it is imperative we guard against dogma – religious, metaphysical, systematic, and scientific. All we can do is point.
The evolutionary drive, which science reduces to the metaphor of genetic code, is the most powerful and mysterious force in our world. It is literally immortal as it finds ways to overcome every obstacle to life. More than a code, it is life itself and our access to the essence of Being. It is a force with intention, although not necessarily conscious. That it has an unyielding intention to further its existence is self evident. The question is: what else might it intend? That is the mystery and question of Being. We interpret it differently, but when I listen to Being, I hear an overwhelming physical force and speak from sensual physicality. Sympathetic vibrations. I have no need to speak of mind because I hear no such thing when I hearken hard to the revelation and add nothing of my own. Perhaps within life there is an intention toward Being evolving its ability to experience itself. And we are its just begun poem.