Matthew David Segall of Footnotes 2 Plato wrote a response to the essay, arguing that Kastrup was attacking only a caricature of panpsychism, ignoring other, more sophisticated models such as Whitehead’s metaphysics. Since that discussion is ongoing, I'm happy to leave any defence of panpsychism in Segall's more capable hands. While I do subscribe to the idea that “psyche” and “matter” constitute one “thing” that is reducible to neither of its "parts," I am not a systematic panpsychist. In fact I’m not a systematic anything. My basic belief is that the world is, ultimately, unknowable. The yin-yang oppositions that characterize the realm of experience, including the dualities of self and world, mind and matter, cannot, in my view, be reconciled by reason. Kierkegaard was right, I think, to say that no human-made rational system could ever do justice to the whole. The human intellect being by nature limited, it simply cannot access the limitless, i.e. ultimate reality or ultimate truth.
So, in this post, I'll try to argue that monistic idealism, Kastrup’s position, is no less of an abstraction than the materialism it seeks to replace. I do this because I feel it is a problem when a philosopher describes a rival view as an “extremely dangerous cultural threat” as Kastrup does in his "warning" against panpsychism. If the mystery of the real has not been solved, if the mystery cannot be solved, then all philosophical positions ought to be welcome or at the very least tolerated, including panpsychism and (dare I say it?) hardcore materialism.
In what follows, I will be discussing Kastrup’s essay “A more parsimonious, logical, non-materialist worldview,” from his book Brief Peeks Beyond [henceforth BPB]. I will also touch briefly on “The Linguistic Con Game of the Mind-Matter Duality,” an article published on Kastrup’s website as a response to a comment I made on his Facebook page.
The entirety of Kastrup’s thought rests on an epistemological premise. He says that the only thing we can know for sure is our consciousness; everything else is inferred and not directly known. I can doubt the existence of the entities that present themselves to me, but I cannot doubt my own existence as a being who can doubt. It could be that the person standing before me is a figment of my imagination, a hologram or illusion. But as the percipient of such doubtful things, I must be real. Kastrup is here reiterating the Cartesian cogito. However, unlike Descartes, for whom the external world is real, Kastrup takes the fact that the world outside my consciousness may not exist to mean that any belief in an external reality is unnecessarily bulky. Since consciousness alone is knowable, the principle of parsimony demands that we begin with the assumption that consciousness is all there is, at least until something requires us to think otherwise.
Kastrup recognizes that his basic premise already raises questions,* because it goes against our standard definition of consciousness as “the fact of awareness by the mind of itself and of the world” (Oxford Dictionary; my italics). For if this standard definition is accurate, consciousness cannot exist without something external to it, since consciousness is precisely the awareness of something that is not it. If idealism is to triumph over materialism, it must be shown that mind is prior to matter, that subjectivity is prior to any objectively existing world. Consciousness, in other words, must be able to exist in and of itself. It must preexist any type of experience. Otherwise, it requires something to be conscious of and can't qualify as primordial.
For this reason, Kastrup affirms that there can be consciousness without experience. He admits that “it is extremely difficult—if not impossible” to conceive of such a thing, but nevertheless insists that the term must be defined in such a way as to allow for the existence of a non-experiential consciousness. He goes on:
Eastern spiritual traditions have also spoken for centuries of ‘pure consciousness’ without experience. What I am trying to point out here is merely the impossibility to coherently articulate this pure consciousness in language. As such, whatever consciousness may intrinsically be in the absence of experience … is fundamentally beyond our ability to talk about or make sense of. (BPB, 12)
Kastrup therefore posits two modes of consciousness. One mode is experiential: it is the consciousness we know and can talk about, the one that requires experience and that therefore implies, by its nature, that there is something objective to be conscious of which is not identical to it (whether “external” in the form of physical events or “internal” in the form of mental events). The second mode of consciousness is non-experiential. This is consciousness as it purportedly exists in the absence of any experience. It is consciousness without subjectivity: the Brahman of Indian spirituality.
Kastrup’s technical definition of consciousness is the following: “Consciousness is that whose excitations are subjective experiences.” (BPB, 12). The definition implies the existence of consciousness without experience by conceiving of consciousness as a thing that can be “excited” and that therefore must also exist as “excitable” in the absence of any excitation. In order to be excitable, however, consciousness must fit into some kind of causal scheme. Because it can change, and because it continues to exist in a “pure” state in the absence of change, it must be temporal; it must exist in time. In other words, consciousness for Kastrup is extended: it is a thing, even if it is the only thing. This thing that is pure consciousness, however, defies rationalization; it is not a philosophical concept but a mystical notion. By Kastrup’s own admission, it is impossible to perceive or even imagine it. Yet it must exist as a transcendent object for his idealist system to cohere.
Kastrup says that the belief in a world outside consciousness (that is to say, an objective world) constitutes an unnecessary logical inference. Yet as we saw above, the conceivable mode of consciousness, the one that everyone can agree on under empiricism, is synonymous with the subjective experience of the objective. I experience the world instinctively as objective, yet monistic idealism demands that I use my intellect to negate its apparent objectivity. So, in truth, it’s the belief in non-experiential consciousness that constitutes an inference. And not only is it an inference, but it’s an inference whose result is empirically unfalsifiable.
The point is that Kastrup extrapolates from the consciousness we know, which is innately experiential, a form of consciousness that no one can “talk about or even make sense of.” He does this because he needs this other, unknowable mode of consciousness to grant Mind ontological primacy over an independently existing world that is not Mind. Yet the difference between the intrinsically experiential consciousness we know and the intrinsically non-experiential consciousness we cannot know implies an intrinsic, which is to say ontological, difference between the two. This will be important later on. For the moment, suffice it to say that experiential consciousness and non-experiential consciousness belong to different ontological categories.
The phenomenologists remarked that there could be no consciousness without “intentionality.” I alluded to this earlier when I noted that consciousness as commonly understood is invariably the awareness by a being of something that is outside the consciousness of that being. This something-that-is-outside-consciousness may, of course, be conscious in its own right, or it may not. Empirically, I can only speak of my consciousness, not of consciousness in general. The existence of an external world is built into the very phenomenon of consciousness as we experience it. When I am conscious of an objective reality, I am conscious of it precisely as something located outside of my subjectivity. When I see a table, I immediately intuit that this table is not me, that it exists outside of me and would continue to do so if I closed my eyes. The table does not for a moment manifest as something synonymous with me, that is, with the I-ness that conditions my consciousness. Again, the objectivity of the table isn’t something I infer; it’s part and parcel of the conscious act itself. It’s what consciousness is, what mind cannot be “made sense of” without.
The same can be argued for internal states such as thoughts, dreams, and visions. Zen Buddhism recognizes this when it distinguishes mental representations from consciousness, which is really a point of awareness without content. And if Jung and Freud insisted on the term “unconscious” to designate those parts of the psyche that are objective even though we are not aware of them, it’s because the evidence points to psyche being vaster than consciousness. Psychology has good reason to say that empirical consciousness, the type we have evidence for, is inseparable from ego. It is that part of me that encounters events beyond my subjectivity. If Kastrup claims that psychoanalysis misnamed the unconscious, it's only because he posits a supra-personal consciousness which, we have seen, is empirically inaccessible to us.
Kastrup recognizes that there is no way anyone interested in doing serious philosophy is going to accept that physical tables are nothing more than the mental constructs of an individual mind. Such a move would entail solipsism, the belief that only I exist and that the whole universe is a kind of hallucination . . . and solipsism is the end of philosophy. To avoid this trap, Kastrup posits the ur-subject of “mind-at-large” as the omniscient “ground” whose experience the seemingly external world constitutes (BPB, 14). After all, idealism dictates that the table I perceive cannot exist outside of mind because there is nothing outside of mind. However, given that the table does exist, there must be a monistic supermind that is experiencing the table in such a way that it appears external to me. And since the existence of such a supermind cannot depend on experience in order to exist (it would then require an objective world), this supermind must be something like mind-at-large, namely something that cannot be experienced yet must exist, if only to support a set of metaphysical beliefs.
One of the questions that monistic idealism has trouble with is how the One becomes the Many. Kastrup’s answer to this problem is that we are all “alters”—fragmented, amnesic parts—of mind-at-large. He takes the term “alter” from psychiatry, wherein it denotes the discrete identities of an individual with multiple personalities . “Essentially,” he writes, “mind-at-large suffers from Dissociative Identity Disorder; and we are its alters.” The question is: How did this dissociation occur within mind-at-large? How did consciousness fall from wholeness to fragmentation (even if said fragmentation is only apparent)? Or to use Kastrup’s metaphor of disturbances in water to represent experience, how did the water start rippling all by itself? This is a problem that I don’t think Kastrup’s monistic idealism can solve logically. In fact it’s a nut I don’t think any form of monism can crack without betraying its own non-rational grounding.
In “The Linguistic Con Game of the Mind/Matter Duality,” Kastrup writes: “Mind is what we are. It refers to our identity, not to one of our abstractions. It’s the ‘medium’ of experience, not a type of experience.” This absolute transcendentalization of mind-at-large as non-experiential “medium” is the irrational jump that makes Kastrup’s rational system hold together. If he were to omit it, his philosophy would lead straight to solipsism. Why? Because if I limit myself to the knowable kind of consciousness, I can very well say, logically, that nothing exists but my mind; ergo, nothing exists but me. Kastrup brings in “mind-at-large” to avoid having to conclude that only Bernardo Kastrup exists, which would be absurd. But this move from finite, experiential consciousness to infinite, omniscient consciousness entails an ontological leap that makes his theory no more parsimonious than materialism, or any other systematic attempt to grasp the whole. On Kastrup’s terms, the only truly parsimonious position would be solipsism.
In qualifying his general metaphysical orientation, Kastrup writes:
All we need to do to make monistic idealism work is extrapolate consciousness beyond the limits of personal psyches. This is entirely reasonable for at least two reasons: first, there is significant empirical evidence for transpersonal states of consciousness; second, regardless of any empirical evidence, inferring that the boundaries of a known ontological category extend beyond face-value limits is much more parsimonious than inferring a whole new ontological category, like a universe outside consciousness. (BPB, 20-21)
As mentioned at the outset, this post deals with an essay bearing the following title: “A More Parsimonious, Logical, Non-Materialist Worldview.” In light of what we've seen, I argue that none of the qualifiers in this title is warranted. Because of its dependence on an ontological category beyond that of experiential consciousness, the view presented in Kastrup’s essay is no more (nor less) parsimonious than the materialism it aims to disprove. Nor is this view any more (or less) logical than its rival; this, on account of its reliance on a transcendent notion without which the conclusions would not follow from the arguments. Further, the view is not non-materialist, since it posits the existence of a non-physical yet temporal and contingent consciousness which, in all aspects but detectability, shares the properties of "matter" as understood by modern physics. Finally, it is not a worldview, since it aims precisely at denying the existence of an external world.
Bernardo Kastrup’s system fails as a systematic, rational explanation of that whole supra-rational business we call reality. In this, it is neither better nor worse off than any other monistic system. This does not mean, of course, that Kastrup (or any other monistic thinker) is wrong. After all, it may well be the case that there is only mind-at-large, and that the things apparently in the world are thoughts in that primordial mind. Then again, it may not. Ultimately, it’s a matter of personal belief and of where one chooses to stop thinking and sit on a transcendent postulate.
If I’ve reacted so strongly to Kastrup’s characterization of panpsychism as a “an extremely dangerous cultural threat,” it’s because such a moral assertion implies that there exists an answer that ought to be enshrined as final truth, and that Kastrup’s monistic idealism is that answer. But until the mystery of being is solved—and it will never be solved—I find it a more honest attitude to remain open and amenable to a variety of possibilities. In the end, the only real threat in philosophy arises when imperfect theory hardens into unquestionable dogma.
* I'd originally written "begs questions" here. Wrong expression caused some confusion.