This is a follow up to my last video, which was a wide-ranging look at Bernardo Kastrup’s interview by Craig Reed. This time I focus tightly on Kastrup’s metaphysics as described in Kastrup’s interview on the Adrian Sinclair Show, titled How to Think About Consciousness, linked to below:
The picture that emerges is a flight of fancy springing from obsolete subject/object metaphysics.
I organized this into the following sections:
We see confusion in Kastrup’s very first sentence:
“Consciousness is the field in which everything happens.
Whatever happens outside the field of consciousness might as well not exist because it is never experienced.”
In that same sentence he first declares that everything that exists happens in the field of consciousness then refers to all the things that exist outside consciousness and dismisses them because they are never experienced. That would seem to negate the claim that consciousness is elemental if there are things outside it, even if they might as well not exist. It is also a curious suggestion that everything outside our experience is of no importance. One might be tempted to excuse this contradiction as an example of misspeaking off the cuff, but the confusion turns out to carry through his entire metaphysics.
This is Kastrup’s central assertion: that consciousness is not emergent from nature but rather it is the ontological primitive from which all else emerges. We will examine this assertion when we analyze his metaphysics, along with the difficulty in general of ever determining any ontological primitive and the history of prior attempts
Here he states that quantum fields are the elemental level of the universe. It would be safer to say that it is the most elemental level we yet know, as most physicists do. From that safe ground, however, he makes the metaphysical leap to the claim that these fields, when unified, are one conscious field.
Quantum field itself is a metaphor for something we cannot conceptualize. We think of it as waves across a field, but both are spatial and temporal concepts through which we try to grasp a reality prior to space, time and causality, and therefore outside our conceptual apparatus. Lacking all epistemological humility, however, he defines what cannot even be grasped. He repeats that error in his attempt to define consciousness, which nobody understands, not even Kastrup. Over the next sections we will look carefully at how he attempts to justify this leap.
Kastrup never actually gives the definition of the Greek word “Meta”, but describes metaphysics as what precedes or underlies physics. This is a common but misleading definition among those who engage in Analytic Philosophy, and doesn’t quite get at the meaning. In Greek, meta means beyond, with the connotation of transcendence. Metaphysics was an invention of 6th century BCE Greek philosophy and marks the end of Greek Pre-Socratic thought. It is the invention of a transcendent immaterial realm of ideas imagined to explain the mysteries apparent in the physical world. Since the time of Francis Bacon, its importance steadily waned. With the scientific method, Bacon sought to exclude metaphysical explanation of the world, which had predominated throughout the Scholastic Medieval period, through empirical evaluation of observable phenomena. Up through the 19th Century, academic subjects were continuously moved from the purview of metaphysics to scientific empiricism.
By the 20th Century, metaphysics had been resoundingly denounced by the most important thinkers such as Wittgenstein, Heidegger, Quine, and Rorty, and seen as the single cause of 2500 years of error in Western thought. Heidegger demonstrated how metaphysics barred our relationship to Being by reducing the physical world to superficial representation and removing Being to an inaccessible immaterial realm, thereby uprooting us from the ground of authenticity.
Wittgenstein used the double meaning of “Unsinn” as nonsense and not available to the senses to dismiss metaphysics and declared the only role left to philosophy after millennia of metaphysical error was therapeutic: Philosophy had done nothing but create illusory problems, and our role is now to to untangle the knots of confusion.
Both of these thinkers saw mystery as the greatest part of existence and beyond our comprehension – at least rationally, embedded in the physical universe. This mystery, not being transcendent, is not characterized by inability to sense or at least detect, but by our inability to grasp it through our modes of understanding evolved for survival, not truth. These thinkers demanded silence before what we cannot know as the only honest intellectual position. In other words, Kastrup relapses into the error of metaphysical fancy where he should remain silent. He returns the essence of nature itself (or Being) back to the imaginary realm of metaphysics – the origin of our present uprootedness.
I also want to focus on his claim that “physics is the way that nature presents itself to us”. He conflates physics as a branch of study with the physical world existing more fully beyond our reductive representations to limit physicality in a way that allows him to redefine the world outside our objectification as immaterial, and later as consciousness. This sleight of hand is his central move, repeated throughout his presentations.
His comment that physics cannot tell us what our representations are in themselves, but only how objects are measured and related, is certainly true and a commonplace understanding. Heidegger gives the best demonstration of how technological thought is really an outgrowth of metaphysics, which removes essence from the knowable world. But Kastrup then goes directly to a claim that there are correct methods of metaphysics that can give us best guesses about essence. What he betrays here is that both physics and metaphysics are reductionist acts, which we will see him explicitly acknowledge later. But that reductionism is what forever closes off any knowledge of essence, or world-in-itself. What physics reduces to physical properties, metaphysics reduces to uprooted empty concepts, both forever inadequate to describe the indescribable. If elemental reality exists outside space, time, and causality, and our concepts cannot exist without being rooted in space, time, and causality, then anything we propose as the essence of world-in-itself, or ontological primitive, will necessarily be wrong. Reducing the unknowable world to consciousness is as foolish as reducing it to atoms.
This is a bad interpretation of Schopenhauer. Schopenhauer’s Will was a blind, mindless, and irrational force. It was the thing-in-itself which we could never know other than through immediate experience of our own consciousness. But Schopenhauer was careful to acknowledge the term Will as a misleading reduction, applicable only to the occasion of labeling the world-in-itself from the human perspective out of our nature as willing beings. A bird would experience it as flight. No word or concept we could devise would be able to exhaust the reality of the world-in-itself. We could just as easily call it the prime force which we experience as Will willing itself blindly, unconsciously, and without purpose. Conscious states such as desires and fears only appear in the phenomenal world, and Kastrup’s mistaken notion of these as innate elements of the world-in-itself is merely an anthropomorphic projection onto the non-reducible Will. A blind, mindless, and aimless force would indeed be a poor base upon which to build an idea of cosmic consciousness.
He repeats his mistaken notion of conscious states and gives an inadequate explanation of why Schopenhauer used the term Will. I have just give one reason, which Schopenhauer explicitly presented in The World as Will and Representation, but there is another deeper explanation.
Will, Der Wille in German and a deeply Germanic word and notion, is a central, or at times even the central concept, over the history of German philosophy. Schopenhauer can be seen mostly as an extension of Kant, but with one seminal alteration: the turning of Kant’s idea of Will on its head, and in doing so, taking a decisive step toward the elimination of Metaphysics in German thought, which was completed by Nietzsche.
Kant used Will as the thing-in-itself to describe the Idealist notion of Pure Reason. Kant’s project was to rescue objective knowledge from Hume’s skepticism while at the same time preserving a bit of Idealism in order to justify his belief in god and free will – a mediation between empiricism and Idealism. Kant’s Copernican Revolution was to demonstrate that we live in a world of representation conditioned by our subjective senses of space and time, and ordered through the categories of understanding into a coherent phenomenal world understood through the principle of sufficient reason. This was our phenomenal world but not the thing in itself, which existed outside space, time, and our categories of understanding – and therefore forever unknowable to us. He ultimately justifies empirical knowledge by equating Will with god, and retains the Rationalist notion that God inserts this Idea of Reason into our consciousness, and thereby validates our phenomenal understanding; but only as far as this reason operates on sense data. Reason applied beyond sense data led to metaphysical transcendental illusion.
As we have already seen, Schopenhauer’s revolution was to remove Will from the Idealist notion of reason and relocate it to physical reality – the irrational primal force of what we represent as nature. It is still unknowable in itself through objectification, but sensible through our own will. The noumenal is no longer pure immaterial mind of god, but brute physical force. Kastrup’s attempt to claim consciousness in Schopenhauer’s Will is therefore a misunderstanding of Schopenhauer’s thought.
Another example of the confusion of Kastrup’s metaphysics. Representation and what Kastrup calls “metacognition” only exist in the rational phenomenal world constructed through human subjectivity, of which Will knows nothing. This is man’s constructed world, which Schopenhauer goes on to see as the mechanism through which we can escape the brute horror of Will – a denial of the fundamental truth and instinct. Again, this could not possibly serve as the foundation of cosmic mind.
I’ll let Kastrup have the last word on this:
IV. Metaphysical Idealism
This is where the underlying metaphysical illusion of material/immaterial I described at the beginning will be revealed as a continuous thread through Kastrup’s metaphysics.
Having earlier stipulated the Kantian dichotomy of phenomenal representational world and noumenal world as it exists in itself outside our representations, Kastrup now elides into the claim that only our representational world is physical and assigns immateriality to the world-in-itself. We see this when he says it’s hard to use the word physical because it has nothing to do with what our intuition tells. This is a non-compelling assertion where the only thing we can truly say is that it lies outside our ability to conceptualize. From the Kantian/Schopenhauerian perspective, size, shape, position, and speed only exist as representations, and in a sense are less real than the world in itself. The only fitting dichotomy, therefore, is not ontological but epistemological: What we can conceive and what lies outside our ability to conceive. Any attempt to define the noumenal would only lead to what Kant terms transcendental illusion. Kastrup later tries to bolster his redefinition of reality outside conceptualization as nonphysical through a distortion of the Leggett Inequalities. Anthony Leggett demonstrated that non-locality and realism cannot coexist, which was pivotal because John Bell had earlier demonstrated beyond doubt that entanglement was real and thereby proved that the quantum realm was nonlocal. Leggett proved beyond that that realism was also precluded at the quantum level. Kastrup twists that to mean physicality was precluded, but we need to understand that Realism in physics has a special meaning which Leggett employed: “the notion that physical systems possess complete sets of definite values for various parameters prior to, and independent of, measurement”.
Quantum reality is physical as energy, but systems with sets of definite parameter values only emerge after entanglement with our observations. Kastrup once again tries to conflate quantum states with the non-physical.
Without any transition, he then jumps to a completely different frame of reference: quantum measurement. As opposed to objects as subjective representations, things are now physically actualized through observation. He never acknowledges the contradiction, or perhaps he never even realizes it, but as we will see later, this will prove a serious problem when he addresses Relationalism and asserts consciousness as the ontological primitive.
He also gives a false simplification of the measurement question. His limiting the trigger of wave collapse to conscious observation might actually just be our limited knowledge since any wave collapse we can know is necessarily an artifact of our conscious entanglement. We can know nothing outside that condition. Perhaps entanglement also occurs outside of consciousness, and our conscious observation is just one instance of entanglement. Quantum mind theory suggests a more intriguing possibility: the moment of entanglement creates our consciousness as the first step in a process of reduction. We first entangle with those potential events within quantum foam that are possible within our universe and not with those with no possibility of realization – the first reduction. Of those possible events in superposition, our consciousness further reduces our perception as wave collapse into what we conceive as eigenstate. Through our evolved categories of understanding and senses of time and space, we further reduce received sense data to our world of representation – the only world we can know objectively. This leaves us incapable of determining anything like ultimate reality, ontological primitive, or the nature of anything outside our representations. All attempts to do so are repetitions of the error of metaphysics. We can meaningfully explore the possibility of mind emerging from quantum events. We cannot meaningfully attribute mind to anything prior to our perceived physicality.
He proceeds to his central tenet:
Kastrup’s followers have well learned to repeat the mantra that while not everything is conscious, everything is within consciousness. Having declared the world in itself as not physical through mere redefinition of the physical, he offers the false choice of material/immaterial, or physical/non-physical. He furthers this metaphysical error by projecting the representational understanding of “consciousness” onto the unknowable elemental physical reality beyond definition.
If we were to stay within what we can actually perceive through experience, it would be far more sound to assert that consciousness emerges from life, and not that life is a representation of consciousness.
Finally, his assertion that everything exists within consciousness causes another problem: if consciousness causes the wave collapse, then quantum states could not possibly exist.
He then moves on to Relational Interpretation of Quantum Mechanics.
This stems from his misreading of Carlo Rovelli’s Relationalist interpretation of quantum reality, which is truly great work. Rovelli is not only a brilliant physicist but probably the closest thing we have to a philosopher of any importance today.
Rovelli starts with the waves of quantum fields as the most elementary level of the universe that we know, or perhaps can know. The universe at bottom is an unimaginably complex interplay of these fields from which emerges spinfoam as purely chaotic quantum events constantly creating and destroying particles. To understand Relationalism further, we need to introduce Rovelli’s notions of perspective, blurring, and ignorance.
It is possible to perceive order as minute subsystems within the chaotic foam as interplay between a small sample of events. This appears to us as a system with increasing entropy which gives rise to our experience of time. To do this, it is necessary to blur the great vastness of existence, or else the appearance of order is lost back to the sea of foam floating atop the quantum field waves. This is the blurring which closes off the vast rest of existence. From this, Rovelli announces time as ignorance – an extreme reduction of reality – literally, an ignoring of vast reality. With awareness of the greater universe, time and order disappear.
Now we come to the.critical part relative to Kastrup’s comment: perspective. Time and causation only emerge relative to a myopic perspective arbitrarily perceiving a system with increasing entropy. This is the creation of a world. He illustrates this with the example of a deck of cards in his discussion of Boltzmann. A brand new deck might be considered in a low entropy state as it is neatly organized into suits by number value. However, from the perspective of black and red it is at a higher level of entropy, from the perspective of number and face cards, even more so, and so on. The degree of increased entropy after shuffling will depend on the original arbitrary perspective, each implying different worlds with different times.
When Kastrup complains of a paradox because the events must be in relation to something else he misses Rovelli’s central point that we individually supply the missing ingredient through the perspective of our individual consciousness blurring the universe lying beyond the perceived subsystem. There is no role or need for a cosmic consciousness, only individual perspectives that create worlds.
In Rovelli’s words in “The Order of Time”:
“On closer inspection, in fact, even the things that are most “thinglike” are nothing more than long events. The hardest stone, in the light of what we have learned from chemistry, from physics, from mineralogy, from geology, from psychology, is in reality a complex vibration of quantum fields, a momentary interaction of forces, a process that for a brief moment manages to keep its shape, to hold itself in equilibrium before disintegrating again into dust, a brief chapter in the history of interactions between the elements of the planet, a trace of Neolithic humanity, a weapon used by a gang of kids, an example in a book about time, a metaphor for an ontology, a part of a segmentation of the world that depends more on how our bodies are structured to perceive than on the object of perception—and, gradually, an intricate knot in that cosmic game of mirrors that constitutes reality. The world is not so much made of stones as of fleeting sounds, or of waves moving through the sea.” (pp.98-99)
With that the entire of question of material/immaterial becomes nonsensical. Call the vibrations of the quantum fields whatever you want, but they display nothing of consciousness and from them emerges only the chaos of spinfoam. Rovelli simply calls them forces. Each of us from our own perspective supplies the rest.
This is really a clever analogy, although hardly original. Kastrup notes the similarity between superposition, with all possibilities yet to be decided, and conscious decisions where that same situation pertains, and concludes from analogy a universal mind. Of course, we could equally argue that consciousness is but one emergent instance of superposition, therefore: emergent quantum mind.
This analogy was done much better in the early 20th century by Alfred North Whitehead. Whitehead was a mathematician and philosopher and one of the founders of Anglo-American Analytic philosophy; and like all the founders other than Russell, went on to renounce that project. In Whitehead’s case it was his encounter with quantum mechanics that awakened him from the poverty of reductionism. In the elemental reality of waves he saw time as central to existence. In the wave a particle had a defined past and a present in superposition where the future is decided. He saw consciousness as this same wave where the body is the past analogous to the particle’s actualized trail, and the mind in superposition deciding among the possibilities toward the future. From this he developed a pantheism where consciousness pervaded the universe deciding at every point. Although limited by a naive notion of time at the quantum level, he transformed a mechanistic view of reality composed of discrete components into an eternal fluid process – a wave founded in universal consciousness – a major step forward from the reductionism and classification characteristic of analytic philosophy.
Here he’s referring to Alan Watts’ musing that the cosmic consciousness got bored and decided to forget the world was its invention in order to make it more interesting for itself. What I find interesting is that Kastrup didn’t outright ridicule the notion, but instead either is drawn to it himself or is playing to the sort of people who are drawn to it. He ultimately rejects it on the basis that there is no evidence for it and it appears to be just an anthropomorphic projection of an experiential state. Yet he doesn’t realize the exact same can be said of universal consciousness, which also can be seen as an experiential state and an act of anthropomorphism. In the same vein, do we have any reason to believe that the universe has an experiential state that has evolved within us?
In earlier instances Kastrup has talked about the arational and chaotic basis of existence, which our dashboard of perception had not evolved to understand. Here, however he uses the rational reductionist method within this dash board to attempt to explain this ultimate arational state anyway. This is the essence of metaphysics and the reason it was abandoned last century among serious thinkers. As he acknowledges, this is a reduction, and here he has reduced a chaotic, arational, and incomprehensible reality to the anthropomorphic projection of consciousness. He then tries to argue on the basis of parsimony that if consciousness is the ontological primitive then those who reject that reduction have the burden to show why there are so many individual instances of this primitive instead of just one .
This is both sloppy thinking and mere sophistry. Unless he gives a compelling case for consciousness as the primitive, which is impossible, we are under no obligation to explain in terms of the primitive, and instead could answer that consciousness is an adaptation found to varying degrees within living organism and no more in need of explanation than the individual instances of vertebrae.
But there is also the problem of parsimony as a basis for decisions in a world characterized by chaos and arationality. Parsimony in this case would be a sure indication of the error of reductionism in such a world. In fact, appeal to parsimony is merely an artifact of Scholastic Metaphysics that assumed a rational god created a rational world – a notion with no place in the modern world.
Contradicting his claim that consciousness is universal primitive and can’t be explained as many individuated instances, he now explains human consciousness as a product of evolutionary adaptation. As such, it needs no further metaphysical projection. He acknowledges the impossibility of knowing the ultimate truth, if there is any such thing, of the universe, which he will then go on to contradict once more to posit his metaphysical speculation of universal consciousness as that impossible explanation.
I want to emphasize the point on which he is correct: that our cognitive processes did not adapt to know cosmic truth and are ridiculously inadequate to do so. I talked earlier about the impossibility for us to imagine anything without time, space, and causality, yet we know these do not exist at the most elemental level of existence we know of, That means nothing other than we have nothing meaningful to say about this state of existence from a scientific standpoint, and any attempt to define this mystery is an error of reduction. Again, this the reason no meaningful interpretation beyond the Copenhagen interpretation has ever been offered, nor ever will. It is a world we literally cannot imagine or grasp.
Within the human scale of intelligence, there are a few individuals who perceive and conceptualize in ways beyond the abilities of the average person, and to the rest of humanity they appear to be formidable geniuses with preternatural understanding of reality. But on the cosmic scale there is scant difference between the exceptional and the ordinary. None of us can imagine the world of which quantum mechanics hints. Even worse, we can only detect existence within the electro-magnetic field and extrapolate from the gravitational field. We experience only 5% of what makes up the universe, and label the unknowable 95% dark energy and dark matter. Again, those labels tell us nothing because we wouldn’t know what to say about them.
Our ability to understand fundamental reality would be the same as trying to understand the workings of the human body through study limited to a toenail. We only fool ourselves, or perhaps more importantly, we fool others when we claim to know any ontological primitive. Kastrup is no exception and we should view his claim of cosmic consciousness with the skepticism appropriate to somebody trying to sell us something of questionable value..
Human intelligence evolved to make predictions through reduction. Similar to Rovelli’s concept of blurring, we ignore almost all reality to focus on what immediately concerns survival and we make predictions by imputing causality. This tells us little about the truth of what surrounds us, but has succeeded to enhance our survivability. It is a purely pragmatic sketch of the world, and technology is the outgrowth of this objective reduction. It is the font of the pragmatist definition of truth as “whatever works”. As Whitehead showed us, it is abandoning the present for the future. The deeper introspection of the world from which we attempt to know meaning, the nature of the world, and our place in it comes from a more primordial esthetic experience of the world in the present. As humans, we dwell in both worlds. Sadly, subject/object metaphysics has grown to an outsized domination, closing off authentic esthetic experience of the present and replacing it with reductive speculation – the 2500 year error of metaphysics. Kastrup continues that error.
He continues his confused contradiction of unknowable ultimate realty and the ability of reductionism to explain it. While we do understand closed systems from a mechanical standpoint, reductionism tells us nothing beyond the superficial appearance and pragmatic usefulness. As Wigner’s Epistemological Law of Empiricism and Rovelli’s Relationalism both demonstrate, all descriptions of a closed system are severely limited by time, space, and chosen events, and have no reason to accord with each other. The contradictions of relativity and quantum mechanics are examples of this, and there is no reason to believe there is any sort of underlying unity that will harmonize these two systems. It seems any grand unification theory would be a mere beckoning illusion of the mind.
The most important point here, however, is his repeated metaphysical leap equating quantum fields, which themselves are only metaphors, to consciousness – an over-defining of the undefinable. The repetition of metaphysical error.
Meaning is the central troubling question for humanity in this age. Descartes’ dualism depicted a meaningless mechanistic physical universe and an immaterial metaphysical soul from which all meaning sprang. Kastrup’s central error stems from the continuation of this material/immaterial dualism. The Enlightenment began the path of destruction of metaphysics, moving an increasing number of issues from metaphysics to the natural sciences, and with that the annihilation of the notion of god. It did not, however, offer anything to replace our loss of meaning and connection to the universe. Instead we became isolated and ungrounded individuals lost in a world reduced to objects of scientific analysis. Our souls dried as husks under the relentless glare of reductionism. That was the horror of Nietzsche’s madman as he announced the death of god.
Since then, we have failed to find the more authentic grounding of our nature as humanity and its source and connection to the universe and are still sickened by the Madman’s continuing vertigo. Of course, this enabled all sorts of charlatans peddling simplistic and false answers to a desperate people.
I agree with much of what Kastrup has to say here. There is meaning grounded in what Schopenhauer called Will, and our relation to Will can show us that meaning. But it is a very difficult process, and we should avoid simplistic answers such as universal consciousness or god. Schopenhauer certainly did. For Schopenhauer, Will had no consciousness. It was blind and mindless volition, much as takes place in our cerebellum, where the volition to live unconsciously regulates our metabolism and organ functions. Humanity in this notion is a late manifestation of Will to experience itself, as the cerebral cortex is to the cerebellum. We are a late feature of Will and our meaning is to experience and know existence. I’ll return to this notion and expand it at the end of the video.
Another example of a simplistic fiction to sooth the anxiety of our mortality, but a hopelessly confused one. Kastrup has consistently described this universal consciousness as blind instinct with no ability to metacognize. That is what we would be rejoining, in effect going from a superior consciousness to blind instinct once again. It is yet to be explained how this blind instinct could then recognize us as conscious alters as we rejoin. In short, this is utter nonsense.
The movement in the West away from metaphysics, including religion, was the desire to part from the rule of ignorance. That requires an arduous struggle to reground ourselves, which we have so far failed to achieve. In the gap, religion and gurus have enriched themselves by preying on the vertigo and anxiety. Metaphysics persists in the academic philosophy industry as the output of mediocre minds dependent on unread journals to maintain their employment.
Rather than fraudulent palliatives, we need the courage to recapture the present. That means returning to esthetic thought held to tightly in the moment of experience. It is the only possible path to meaning, and our imperative. Our purpose is to experience Being and allow its poetry too speak through us; its music to sing and dance through us. In the process the world regains the wonderful – the fullness of Being at last returning from its metaphysical exile to this very physical world through esthetic knowledge.