Sunday, September 30, 2018

Twilight of the Idols and the Cosmic Mind

"The concept of the “beyond”, the “true world” invented in order to devaluate the only world there is - in order to retain no goal, no reason, no task for our earthly reality! "     Nietzsche, Ecce Homo

In Twilight of the Idols and other works, one of the key critical targets of Friedrich Nietzsche is the dichotomy often posited by philosophers between a “true” world and the supposedly illusory or deficient apparent world that is felt, sensed and experienced. Nietzsche argues that the disparagement of the apparent world in favour of the “true” world is unjustified, unproductive and unhealthy. The “true” worlds upon which he aims he sights  include the barren atomistic world of materialist science, the spiritual world existing beyond the body posited by various religions, and the world of abstract ideation of idealist philosophies of the day.

The purpose of this post is to examine a contemporary form of idealism proffered by Bernardo Kastrup in this paper, in the light of Nietzsche’s characterisation of this dichotomy between the apparent world and the true world.

Kastrup’s very interesting and thought-provoking paper postulates an ontology in which cosmic consciousness is the only fundamental ontological entity. He draws on analogies with Dissociative Identity Disorder to argue that living organisms are dissociated alters of cosmic consciousness. The inanimate world that we see around us is posited as the extrinsic appearance of the thoughts of cosmic consciousness and other living organisms we see as the extrinsic appearance of other dissociated alters. A brief Scientific American article on Kastrup’s ontology is also online here.

A preliminary point for the purposes of this post is the distinction Kastrup makes between thoughts of cosmic consciousness and perceptions of alters. Whilst I think a distinction between thoughts and perception can be useful in some circumstances, such a distinction may not always be very clear-cut and the two may often blend into each other (think of kinesthetic sensations and internal bodily awareness). The distinction is not relevant to this post so I will primarily refer to all phenomenal contents such as thoughts, feelings, perceptions and sensations as qualia.

Dissociative boundaries

Kastrup’s model requires that there is a dissociative boundary between our phenomenal field and the qualia of cosmic consciousness. Kastrup argues that this boundary is the physical boundary of living organisms.

One potential problem with the physical boundary of organisms being the dissociative boundary is that whilst at a macroscopic level this boundary may appear quite distinct, at the microscopic level the boundary may be quite fluid  Think of strands of hair, the 30,000 odd dead skin cells we shed per minute or beads of sweat being released from a sweat gland. At what point does the bead of sweat cease to be part of the phenomenal contents of the alter and become a quale of the rest of cosmic consciousness? Any point at which the transition is posited as occurring seems somewhat arbitrary.

I am not sure how much of an issue the fluidity of an organism’s boundaries really is for Kastrup’s model, but in any case, I will address two scenarios here. In the first scenario it is assumed that there is indeed a hard dissociative boundary between an alter and the rest of cosmic consciousness. In the second, it will be assumed that the boundary is soft and fluid.

Hard dissociative boundaries

In making the assumption of a hard dissociative boundary, whilst all phenomenal contents are grounded in and ultimately are part of cosmic consciousness, the private qualitative fields of alters are not directly experienced by cosmic consciousness. In view of this, I think it is useful  make a distinction between the phenomenal contents of cosmic consciousness which are experienced by cosmic consciousness and those which are not. I will call the phenomenal contents which are experience by cosmic consciousness the ‘cosmic mind’.

The cosmic mind is equal to the qualia of cosmic consciousness less the qualia experienced by alters. Or to put it in terms of revealed appearances, the cosmic mind is the regions of the universe that are not occupied by living organisms.

In relation to qualia experienced by alters and those experienced by the cosmic mind, each cannot evoke qualia in the other, although they can influence each other.  Alters can influence the qualia of the cosmic mind (in terms of revealed appearance, this corresponds to the effects of a living organism on the world) just as the cosmic mind influences alters (an organism being affected by its surrounding environment). But the qualia of alters and the cosmic mind belong to each of them respectively and are not experienced by the other. .

Kastrup notes that we have evolved to perceive not the phenomenal contents that are really out there, but just a phenomenal representation thereof that helps us survive and reproduce. But equally, the cosmic consciousness outside an alter does not perceive the phenomenal content (colours, sounds, flavours, textures etc) that the alter perceives. This is the private phenomenal field of the alter.

Hence, just as what we alters experience of the cosmic mind is analogous to a desktop representation of a computer file, so too what the cosmic mind experiences of alters  is analogous to a desktop representation of what alters experience. There is no fundamental ontological difference I can see here, so I think that  under the assumption of a hard dissociative boundary the qualia of alters and the qualia of the cosmic mind are of equal ontological status. Neither is any more real or true than the other.

Soft dissociative boundaries

Under the assumption of a soft dissociative boundary the boundaries between the cosmic mind and alters is not rigid but is fluid or blurry. From the perspective of experienced qualia it would seem that this implies that qualia can gradually fade out of the experiences of the cosmic mind and become part of the experience of an alter. As the same qualia cannot be experienced by different entities this is clearly problematic .

It seems to me that the only way to make sense of this issue is to dispense with the idea of qualia belonging to an alter or the cosmic mind altogether. Thus, if there are soft dissociative boundaries then there are only the qualia of cosmic consciousness and there is no distinction between the qualia of the cosmic mind and the qualia of alters. There is no real boundary distinguishing qualia inside and outside living bodies, there are the just the qualia of cosmic consciousness.

This is hard to conceptualise in terms of one’s personal experience as the constructs of language and thought lead one into believing that the qualia ‘you’ experience belong to ‘you’ - language structures our thinking into term of subjects and predicates, nouns and verbs. This mystifying power of language is another theme which Nietzsche addresses in Twilight of the Idols, where he writes:

“We enter a realm of crude fetishism when we summon before consciousness the basis presuppositions of the metaphysics of language - in plain talk, the presuppositions of reason. Everywhere reason sees a doer and a doing...” 

Despite the difficulties in thinking or describing the notion that one’s qualia do not belong to oneself, there are some circumstances where I believe you can get the feeling of what this means. In situations where volitional activity is largely absent, such as waking up, drifting off to sleep, daydreaming or meditating, it does often feel that experience is just there without anyone having personal ownership of it.

Anyway, to return to the main argument of this post, under the assumption of a soft dissociative boundary despite there being only the qualia of cosmic consciousness, it is nevertheless the case that what is experienced in the region my body occupies is different to what is experienced in the region of other bodies. My experiences are different from yours. Thus, under this assumption it can be concluded that the experiences of cosmic consciousness are different in different regions of space.

 Again, as with the assumption of the hard dissociative boundary, in this scenario there is no ontological priority of qualia occuring outside living organisms over qualia of organisms. There are just different regions of the universe with different qualia.


The above analysis leads to the conclusion that under Kastrup's model, at least as I interpret it,  there is no concealed order of nature which is ontologically privileged relative to the order of revealed appearances. There is no “true” world existing beyond or behind the apparent world that is sensed and felt.  The world simply is as it appears in different regions of cosmic consciousness.

Thus, none of the experiences of the cosmic mind, a person walking down the street, a drug-user hallucinating pink dragons or a monk in deep meditation are more true or real than the others. They are all just the qualia of cosmic consciousness experienced from different regions or perspectives. Of course, this is not to say that some perspectives may not be more useful, comprehensive, life-enhancing or sublime than others.

Note that this is largely an adaptation of Nietzsche’s perspectivism (which, incidentally, I think is quite similar to Nargarjuna’s conceptualisation of emptiness) to Kastrup’s model.

Finally, what is the point of all this analysis? In terms of living one’s life the point is this:  Kastrup’s idealism, like idealism generally, can certainly be interpreted as providing metaphysical support for the views of those who are religiously inclined. But I believe it can be equally supportive to those who seek to find their purpose solely within our earthly reality.


Jim Cross said...

In what sense is cosmic consciousness "cosmic"? What does it mean to be cosmic.

Does it mean it is pervasive across the universe?

Does it imply some commonality across living organisms? Do all the alters see red the same way?

For that matter, do all of the dissociative identities see red the same way (except for a blind one)? We would think they would since the red is being produced by the identical vision system.

I would think dissociative disorders are produced by some re- or dis-organization at different level of consciousness from core consciousness and hence can't be used to compare the difference in consciousness between a bat and myself.

Justin said...

Hi Jim
Kastrup's model is a form of idealism so basically everything is consciousness, including the universe and spacetime itself. I would say that alters with similar organismic structures (with such structures being how those portions of cosmic consciousness appear to an alter) could be inferred to have similar qualia though, yes, that doesn't tell us anything about what it's like to be a bat. Kastrup has also written a lot of books and other articles that go into more detail than the article I linked to. Can't say I understand, have read or agree with all of it, but I find it a very interesting model nonetheless.

Jim Cross said...

My view is in many ways not too different from Kastrup's but definitely different.

Everything is not consciousness but everything we know is. It's a subtle difference, maybe some would say no difference at all, but it avoids the problem of why I can't fly or jump off a building and live. If everything is consciousness, I should be able to make the world however I want but I am constrained by things outside of consciousness. Those things I only know about through consciousness and likely are tremendously distorted by the representations of consciousness. It is possible that these constraints are more malleable and less fixed than they appear to be because my representations are imperfect. Still that doesn't mean there are no constraints whatsoever on consciousness. So everything is not consciousness.

To some extent, Kastrup's view seems to be rehash of the mind/brain as receiver viewpoint. Consciousness is like a television station broadcasting reality and our minds are its receivers. His nuance is that we are all tuning into our own personal programs.

At any rate, I think DID is an imperfect model for this. I have never seen any evidence that suggests that organisms other than humans suffer from DID and, if there were such evidence, I would suspect it would only be seen in social organisms. Our sense of identity (as the I in DID) is a part of consciousness but it is a social construct and a higher order function from core consciousness.

From an evolutionary standpoint, I see consciousness developing from an ability to create neural maps of the external world, including the body itself as an entity external to the brain. Consciousness across organisms is similar in the sense that this mapping technology is similar.

Justin said...

The neural mapping concept makes sense though I think whether this developed from a more primitive consciousness rather than visa versa is debatable. Kastrup would disagree that if everything is consciousness, I should be able to make the world however I want (as in his model, while everything is consciousness, not everything is 'my'consciousness ).
BTW he also runs a quite active google group called metaphysical speculations you might be interested in:!forum/metaphysical-speculations

Jim Cross said...

I've seen the group and joined it.

Even if everything is not "my" consciousness, why does my consciousness have constraints? I should be able to take on the identity of a bird and fly if there are no external constraints.

Conceivably, I guess, Kastrup could argue there are constraints built into cosmic consciousness, or a structure to cosmic consciousness that involves constraints, or perhaps better that the creation of an individual identity or individual consciousness involves the imposition of constraints. I have looked at everything he's written so I am not sure he goes into how any of that works.

Certainly ideas similar to this are implicit in many religions and belief systems. Reincarnation contains the idea of souls (fragments of cosmic consciousness?) that move from one limited form of existence to another - animals to humans to beings on higher planes - a sort of serial DID in different physical manifestations .The concept of gnosis also implies that our real nature is divine or, in other words, our real consciousness is cosmic, and our limited form is an illusion.

So I don't see a lot new in what Kastrup's offers except he puts a more philosophical, non-religious spin on it.

Jim Cross said...

Reading some more, maybe he does try to explain how it works with his "experiences are patterns of self-excitation of cosmic consciousness".

Seems very strained to me without making any really cogent argument for self-excitation other than an "inherent disposition to self-excitation".

Seems like Hindu/Buddhist concept of Maya - cosmic consciousness disguises itself in experiential consciousness and hides its eternal reality.

Justin said...

Re constraints of individual consciousnes, in "Brief Peaks Beyond" Kastrup says:

" The fact that contents of consciousness fall outside the control of our personal volition does not imply that they originate outside consciousness itself. After all, there are plenty of examples of undeniably mental phenomena that we do not identify with and can-
not control: our nightmares, schizophrenic hallucinations, spontaneous visions,
certain obsessions and compulsions, etc. Schizophrenics do not identify with and
cannot control their hallucinations; they experience them as external phenomena.
Yet, their hallucinations are entirely mental. Similarly, we do not identify with and
cannot control the part of our psyches that generates our dreams and nightmares,
otherwise we would never have the latter."

There are lots of varieties of idealism around of course, but I think Kastrup's is one variety that aims to be consistent with contemporary physics and neurophysiology. Generally, I am not a big fan of idealism as I think it can lead to "otherworldliness" and distract from the problems of the real world, but I think Kastrup's model can be interpreted in a way that circumvents this (hence the blog post).

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