158. Bernardo Kastrup’s Controversial View of Consciousness Research

Author and scientist sees pattern of decreased brain activity during peak experiences.

Join Skeptiko host Alex Tsakiris for an interview with Dr. Bernardo Kastrup, author of Meaning in Absurdity.  During the interview Kastrup discusses his beliefs about human consciousness:

Alex Tsakiris: You make some interesting connections between the “fainting game”, erotic asphyxiation  and some new research with psychedelic mushrooms. You suggest that when we really look at what’s going on in the brain we actually see a dampening down of brain areas – the opposite of what we would expect. So what are the implications of this in terms of this idea of filtering of consciousness?

Bernardo Kastrup: The current paradigm says that conscious experience is an epiphenomenon, a by-product, of brain activity. So you should always be able to find a tight correlation between conscious states as reported by the subject and measurable brain states as measured, for instance, with an FMRI scanner. Usually this correlation is there, but there are instances, like this study you mentioned, where this correlation is not there in a very spectacular and repeatable way. What it suggests is that we have to find another model of reality, if you will, to accommodate this. A model that accommodates both the fact that normally, ordinarily, conscious experience is modulated by brain states, but also sometimes there is a lack of correlation in a spectacular way.

Alex Tsakiris: So these anomalies you’re talking about, for example, with psilocybin and reduced brain functioning, or brain injuries that lead to increased consciousness, these have to be explained. We can’t just sweep them off the table and say, “well, materialism seems to work pretty well in the general sense,” right?

Bernardo Kastrup: These anomalies are major anomalies. They are gigantic anomalies. The only way we can get away with them and still honestly believe in the materialistic paradigm as many of us do is because that paradigm embodies an approach of looking upon the world that is a third-person perspective. In other words, it’s not through personal experience but through reports and measurements.

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Alex Tsakiris: Today’s guest is an author, blogger, an entrepreneur with a Ph.D. in computer engineering and all-around fascinating guy, Bernardo Kastrup. Welcome to Skeptiko.

Bernardo Kastrup: Thanks, Alex. It’s a pleasure to be here.

Alex Tsakiris: So Bernardo, a lot of folks might have come across you in the Skeptiko forum. I read a terrific blog post of yours in your blog, Metaphysical Speculations. I thought it was really great. A lot of folks on the Skeptiko forum reacted very positively to it. We had a really interesting conversation going there.

Then I delved in further and I heard from your publicist and I found out you have a brand new book and it’s your third in a series of what looks like tremendous books. So we really have a lot to talk about today and I’m looking forward to it.

Bernardo Kastrup: Sure. I’ve been looking forward to this for quite a while, Alex.

Alex Tsakiris: So where I thought we might start, since there are probably a lot of folks who aren’t familiar with your work, tell us a little bit about your background, your blog, and of course your books.

Bernardo Kastrup: Well, I have a quite ‘scientistic’ background even, and if you will, a very rationalistic background. I have a degree in computer engineering. I’ve worked as a scientist in different places, including CERN in Switzerland. I’ve lived alongside materialistic scientists and I used to think like that. In a way that was not only who I am but in a way who I feel I represent today.

But over time, working in that environment, one becomes slowly cognizant of the hidden assumptions of the scientific paradigm. The hidden subjective value system, the hidden assumptions about the nature of reality that we all make without knowing we are making them.

And once you become aware of that, you can’t avoid but start pursuing different avenues of thought, different avenues of investigation, either empirical and scientific, when it’s possible, and, when it’s not possible, a philosophical approach to understanding the nature of reality. That’s the part I have been pursuing over the last few years.

Alex Tsakiris: Awesome. And I think that might not sound like something that a lot of folks can wrap their arms around but once they read some of your writing I think they’ll appreciate more of what you’re saying. What I get from reading your work is that there is this philosophical bent but it’s not a purely philosophical approach. It seems to be very grounded in not only science but kind of reason and logic.

With that in mind, I guess I’d like to kind of direct this into one of these blog posts that relates back to your books. I hope you’ll tell us how it does tie into your books. But the blog post was on consciousness and memory. Let me give you just a little quote here and we can bounce off of that and see where we go.

“Consciousness may never be absent,” you say. “What we refer to as periods of unconsciousness, be they sleep, anesthesia, or fainting may be reinterpreted as periods in which memory formation is impaired.”

There isn’t anything super-controversial there but it’s really deep in terms of its implications. Can you expound on that a little bit and maybe tell us some examples of how that comes into play?

Bernardo Kastrup: Sure. I’ve been thinking about consciousness for quite a while now because it is the sore spot in the materialistic paradigm, in the current scientific paradigm; the one thing that we cannot explain, even in principle; that we cannot deduce from anything that we know empirically in science today. The assumption we make usually is that consciousness somehow is generated by the brain. Nobody knows how, but that’s the assumption we make.

Therefore, if the brain’s impaired because you are asleep and you are not in a dream state, or because you fainted, or you’re under anesthesia, consciousness then disappears. But one cannot tell the difference, of course, between the absence of an experience or the absence of a memory of an experience. It is impossible for us empirically, from a first-person perspective, to tell the difference.

So the absence of consciousness, or the assumption that consciousness may be absent, when we interfere with the brain in certain ways, natural or unnatural, is considered an empirical reason to believe that consciousness is generated by the brain.

But it may be different. It may be that interference with the brain interferes with memory formation; that consciousness perhaps was there all along. Maybe you were in amazing dream worlds while you were undergoing surgery under anesthesia. It’s known world-wide that, for instance, teenagers play a very dangerous game called, “The Fainting Game,” in which they on purpose choke themselves to have a mystical experience and hopefully return. That is something that is not recommended for anyone to do.

But all these things are suggestive that consciousness goes on during periods in which we are assumed to be unconscious and the only thing that gets impaired is the formation of the memory that gives you later access to that experience.

Alex Tsakiris: Again, if we just compare that to what we do know scientifically, it really becomes rather obvious, right? So what you’re saying is we can hook you up and monitor your brain activity while you’re sleeping and moreover monitor your eyes. We can say, “Ah, you’re in REM state. You’re having a dream.”

We can compare that pattern to other people who remember having a dream and then you might wake up and say, “God, I didn’t have any dream. I didn’t have anything.” And then from that first-person account and for everything that you can say about it, you have not had that experience. And yet we have this other empirical evidence that suggests you did have a conscious experience.

Bernardo Kastrup: You’ve pointed out one asymmetry, which is: you have no memory of a conscious experience while through, say, an fMRI, people can make a measurement of your brain states and empirically derive that probably you had an experience, but you just don’t remember it. That’s one asymmetry.

The other asymmetry, which I find much more interesting, is: when you do have a memory of a conscious experience but there is no measureable brain activity. There are many examples of that. Some of them repeatable now through the use of psychoactive substances, as has been done in the U.K. recently.

Alex Tsakiris: Fascinating. Let’s talk about filtering of consciousness. You make some really interesting connections in this blog post, and I assume in your books as well, about the relationship, for example, between the Fainting Game you just mentioned or erotic asphyxiation and also some of this new research with psychedelic mushrooms.

It suggests that when we really look at what’s going on in the brain as opposed to what we would expect of an excitation of certain brain areas, we actually see a dampening down of brain areas. So what would be the implications of that, the way you see it, in terms of this idea of filtering of consciousness?

Bernardo Kastrup: The current paradigm says that conscious experience is an epi-phenomenon, or a by-product, or in any case generated by brain activity. So you should be able to always find a tight correlation between conscious states as reported by the subject and measurable brain states as measured, for instance, with an fMRI scanner. Usually this correlation is there, which indicates that there is a tight relationship between the brain and consciousness, and that’s something we have to grapple with. We cannot ignore that. That’s empirical evidence.

But there are instances, like this study that you alluded to in the U.K., where this correlation is not there in a very spectacular and repeatable way. In this study in the U.K., subjects were given psilocybin and they had unfathomable conscious experiences beyond anything they had ever experienced before in their lives. The only thing they could measure in the fMRI was a dampening down of brain activity in certain key areas. No excitation anywhere.

Now, this breaks the correlation. The paradigm would require that an unfathomable experience, any experience what-so-ever, actually, should be correlated with brain activity and excitation of the brain, not a dampening down. That is a fundamental break with the paradigm as I see it. There is no way of escaping from this today.

What it suggests, in my view, is what you alluded to: the brain as a filter; that idea. What it suggests is that we have to find another model of reality, if you will, to accommodate this; a model that accommodates both the fact that normally, ordinarily, conscious experience is modulated by brain states. You experience this every time you get drunk, for instance. There is a correlation there. We cannot escape from this. But also sometimes there is a lack of correlation in a spectacular way.

The brain filter model accommodates for both. It suggests that in ordinary states, when our brain is functioning normally, as evolution had it work, you have this correlation because the brain filters conscious experience in such a way that it modulates conscious experience.

So if you interfere with the mechanism of the filtration process of the material brain by, for instance, getting drunk or whatever, you will observe a change in conscious experience, since it’s modulated by the filter. But if you take the filter down in certain ways, then your consciousness should expand to the extent that it’s no longer filtered.

There is plenty of recent empirical evidence about this. Not only this study in the U.K. but studies done with patients that suffered brain damage as a result of surgery. There’s a study published in Neuron, a neuroscience journal, in 2010, that elaborates on these extensively. There are reports from people who have suffered strokes. There’s a famous one, a Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor, a neuro-anatomist that reported on her experiences on this, and many other instances. And I think the brain filter theory is much more amenable to the empirical evidence than the current paradigm as it is stated.

Alex Tsakiris: Why don’t you refine for us a little bit, Bernardo, the concept of the filter? I think you make a great point in the most recent post that I read where you point out how, if we take it too literally, that metaphor, it can appear like a contradiction but it doesn’t have to be. We’re in this kind of difficult space when we talk about these things because just the nature of analyzing our brain and the kind of recursive nature of it. But also that we’re struggling for metaphors that don’t always fit. Talk a little bit about that.

Bernardo Kastrup: The brain filter theory is not recent. It’s at least 100 years old. It started even before Henry Bergson, who was the first person to really elaborate on this in the late 1800s. But the idea there is that consciousness is a fundamental property of nature, maybe the one property of nature that’s irreducible, unbound, not subject to space-time limitations. In other words, your true subject, your true ‘I’ would, in principle, be able to be aware of everything that has ever happened, is happening, or will ever happen anywhere in the known and unknown universe.

And the role of the brain and the reason why it has evolved was to localize consciousness in the space-time location of the body because that would obviously give us a survival advantage. It would make you care about your physical body through identifying with it. And it will be less confusing also to survive as an organism if your consciousness is localized in your immediate surroundings in space-time.

What this seems to imply, and that’s what you alluded to, is it seems to imply dualism. It seems to imply that there is such a thing as mind stuff, which is unlimited and unbound, and there is matter, a completely different kind of stuff, which filters down mind stuff. That’s dualism. I’m not necessarily completely opposed to dualism, although I do find it inflationary. It makes two fundamental assumptions as opposed to one, as Materialism would have it or Idealism would have it. Idealism is the philosophy that everything is only mind stuff.

So personally I subscribe more to the philosophy of Idealism, which is that nature is exactly what it seems to be. It’s only what is in the mind. In Materialism you project this abstraction that there is something out there that we do not have direct access to, which stimulates our sense organs and creates our mind-picture of the world. But that thing out there in itself is independent of mind. I think that is also a leap of faith, not skeptical enough leap of faith.

But then if you believe in what I just said, then you have to explain how the brain as a consciousness filter, being part of reality and therefore being consciousness itself, how can it filter consciousness? In other words, how can consciousness filter itself? That seems to be a self-referential contradiction.

Alex Tsakiris: Right. I like in your posts when you bring it down to a concrete example. We can’t have a coffee filter made out of coffee. So there would appear to be a contradiction when we say we have a consciousness filter made out of consciousness. But I’m sorry—go ahead and finish and tell us why that isn’t necessarily a contradiction.

Bernardo Kastrup: In the blog post you refer to, I try to come up with a couple of metaphors. One of them is the metaphor of a whirlpool in a stream of water. If you go to a stream and you see a whirlpool, you can localize it. You can delineate its boundaries; you can point at it and say, “There is a whirlpool.” It is very concrete, it’s very defined. There is no question about how palpable and material it is.

At the same time, there’s nothing to the whirlpool but water. It’s just made of water and yet it localizes water in a sort of loopy trajectory that sort of limits and filters down, if you will, limits the water molecules to a specific circular trajectory. It doesn’t allow those molecules to traverse the entire stream. That’s a kind of localization mechanism, a kind of filtering-down mechanism in which water localizes itself in a whirlpool.

So the hypothesis is: could the brain be exactly such a thing? Could the brain be, as anything else according to Idealism, just a figment in consciousness, just an image in consciousness, and yet, as an image, represent a process through which consciousness localizes itself, just like water localizes itself in a whirlpool? That’s the hypothesis that I bring up.

We need a new language to talk about these things. Materialism has evolved a very sophisticated, very precise language. We need something of that nature for Idealism. We need time to develop that, I think.

Alex Tsakiris: Right. By the same token, we don’t need a new language or additional time in order to point out the problems with Materialism, the problems with Reductionism, which I think you do a great job of doing. So these anomalies that you’re talking about, for example, with the psilocybin, with the reduced brain function, brain injuries that lead to increased consciousness, all those things have to be explained because, as we know in the way that paradigms evolve and change, it’s always these little problems on the border that turn out to be the big problems that overturn the paradigm.

So I really like the way that you push it. We do have to be concerned about these anomalies. We can’t just sweep them off the table and say, “Well, Materialism seems to work pretty good in the general sense,” right?

Bernardo Kastrup: Yeah. This has happened again and again throughout history, as Thomas Kuhn has pointed out already in the 60s. Every time that a generation adopts a certain paradigm, it thinks that it has figured it out–it’s just a matter of fine-tuning—even though it knows that for hundreds of years before, every previous generation has been wrong. But we think finally now we’ve got it right, until the paradigm would change again.

I think these anomalies, they are major anomalies. They are gigantic anomalies. The only way we can get away with them and still honestly believe in the Materialistic paradigm, as many of us do–and I think it’s an honest belief, not a conspiracy of any kind in my opinion– the way we can do that is because that paradigm embodies an approach of looking upon the world that is a third-person perspective. In other words, it’s not through personal experience but through reports and measurements. The anomalies, the nature of the anomalies that we are talking about, is very personal. These are first-person experiences.

It’s very easy for someone who has not had the experience and is just listening to a report or to a metaphor, to come and say, “You know what? It’s just oxygen starvation or it’s just blood flow to the retina being reduced from the outer edges inwards to the center.” It’s very easy to say that in a very reasonable way if you have not had the experience to the extent and to the magnitude that other people have.

But as a person who has had the experience, if I had been one of those people, I would be able to judge those explanations and very easily discard them as inappropriate from a first-person perspective. And people do that, but our culture, our paradigm, does not consider that a valid point because we are too addicted to measurement and a third-person perspective, while the nature of the anomaly is personal. I think that is where we are hitting a roadblock.

Alex Tsakiris: Right. And the other point that you make that I think is really right on on this is that there’s a certain uncomfortableness that we experience when we go to this border between this other worldly experience, this greater consciousness, and coming back. And there’s a certain built-in mechanism that we have in this brain/body thing that we have that makes it very uncomfortable for us to switch back and forth.

I think maybe you want to speak to that a little bit. But I think that’s a great point that there is this balance, this very delicate balancing on a razor’s edge that we must walk to even experience or talk about this stuff.

Bernardo Kastrup: The reality we ordinarily live in is as much perceived as it is constructed through language. This is a fact of neuroscience. This is a fact of the current paradigm. We know this, that much of what we believe we experience we actually infer. We don’t perceive, we infer, and we infer that largely through constructs of language. Our thoughts are co-extensive with the way we speak.

So we live in this ordinary reality that is largely generated by language and if we drift to a less filtered, a less localized state of consciousness, what you may experience could quite easily transcend the constructs of language. Language has not evolved to represent that. We do not have a shared dictionary, if you will, to talk about those kinds of experiences.

Language evolved for practical reasons, to coordinate our activities in the ordinary, empirical world. Not to describe those things. So language breaks down. So when you go there and you come back and you try to articulate that in language, it can be a disaster. It can be a circus of contradictory metaphors. I think that’s one aspect that makes it uncomfortable.

Alex Tsakiris: Right. But let me just interject because another aspect of it beyond the language and beyond all that is I’ve got to get out and pick up the pizza and bring it home in time so that I can help the kids with their homework, get them down to sleep with a good story that’s going to make them feel good, and then get me down to sleep with a good story that makes me feel good. So I can get up and somewhat have a reasonable life and do all this tomorrow and I feel comfortable with that because I know how uncomfortable it is when I stray too far from that. I somehow have to integrate that in, as well.

So on a really practical level—and we’ve spoken on this show to folks who do seem to be challenged with this—this broader conscious experience doesn’t integrate well with the day-to-day life that we all like to live.

Bernardo Kastrup: Carl Jung used to say the human being needs a myth in order to live, and he didn’t mean that it’s a lie, that it’s untrue. All he meant was that we need an image of the world through which we can explain the world to ourselves. We settle into that image once we have it and we become comfortable with it. It gives us reassurance. It gives us some foundation for thinking, deciding on the key questions of our lives and living.

And once you have an experience like that, that transcends the models you previously had or the models that you heard from anyone, and even the structures of language that you can use to explain to yourself what’s going on, it can be very, very uncomfortable; very hard to integrate. I can easily believe that the way some people react to this, on an unconscious level even, is to forget it, is to not hold to the memory. Is to completely ignore and say, “Nothing happened. I don’t remember anything. This is all nonsense.”

Alex Tsakiris: Right. And you know, and then if we broaden that from the individual level to a group level, we can talk about—as you do—how our culture then starts building in more and more systems that prevent us from having those larger experiences because they don’t integrate well with the broader social, cultural, not only norms but goals and directions that we have.

So do you want to speak to that a little bit? You mentioned how we’re less connected to nature. We’re less connected to hard work. We’re less connected to maybe some advanced breathing or meditation techniques. All those things that could connect us to that broader consciousness we are systematically removed from by our culture.

Bernardo Kastrup: Yeah. I think if you look at primitive societies, pre-literary societies, Aboriginals, however you want to call them, these were societies that didn’t have the level of comfort we have today. Today we eat regularly, we treat chronic disease, we work eight hours, maybe ten hours, twelve hours a day. Maybe I and you worked a little bit more in our past. But in general we have a very grounded, comfortable life which allows our brain, the filter of consciousness if the hypothesis holds, to operate very well, consistently, day after day.

That’s good in a way but that takes away our access to what you could call—I don’t like this word very much but I will use it because it communicates the idea well—it cuts our access to the ‘Other World,’ if you will. Primitive cultures, those guys, were exposed to extraneous effort, to malnutrition, chronic disease, and exposure to the elements.

Their bodies were subjected to constant stress that could impair the functioning of the filter and would give them regular access to the other world—this “Other World,” if you will—to the point that they would even induce that themselves through ordeals, through breathing techniques, through initiation rituals, through all kinds of things that today we discard as nonsense, as superstition.

They evolved a language over time that we consider mythical and metaphorical. They evolved a language to articulate and hold to the memories of those experiences and talk about it. When you can talk about something the memory takes hold. It becomes part of your culture. It becomes part of your reality.

When your access to that world as a civilization is so restricted because we are so grounded on this side of the divide, we are so grounded on the filtered consciousness as opposed to the unfiltered one—if the hypothesis holds, again—we lost that language. We completely lost it and if we don’t have a language to talk about it we can’t hold to the experience.

Psychotherapists, psychologists, analysts, what they would tell you is to try to hold to those memories by giving them expression as soon as possible after an experience. Like through drawing. Through writing. Through poetry. Whatever way you can find to give it form so you can hold to those memories. Create a language and talk about them. I think that’s what we miss.

Alex Tsakiris: Yeah, that’s a great point. It makes you wonder which came first, the three-day sweat lodge followed by the three-day no food hike to the top of the mountain, or the accidental experience of expanded consciousness and then how do we recreate that kind of thing, right? That’s what you’re kind of talking about.

Bernardo Kastrup: I think through being so good at improving our lives we’ve shrunk our reality tunnel to an unprecedentedly narrow point. To the point that we’ve lost the language to talk about anything more, beyond this very narrow band where we live today. And it’s a cruel thing, isn’t it? I mean, we improved our lives in once sense and we’ve lost access in another sense.

Alex Tsakiris: Yeah. Speaking of language, let’s talk about a couple of words that you used before and try and nail those down. That is “Realism” versus “Idealism” and maybe you can tell us why you’re an Idealist.

Bernardo Kastrup: I declare myself an Idealist to make a point, although my position is a little more subtle than that. I would be comfortable talking about this with you. Just as an intro, Realism is the philosophy, or the worldview, that says that there is an objective world out there independent of mind. Matter, space-time, energy, they exist independent of mind, of consciousness. And they stimulate our sense organs, thereby creating our conscious experiences inside our brains. That’s the philosophy of Realism. The world is objective and that objective world stimulates our sense perception.

Alex Tsakiris: Let’s talk about the implications for Realism and what it means practically. The term I like to use I borrowed from our good friend, Richard Dawkins. You are a biological robot. That is the natural conclusion of Realism, right? You are a biological robot. Everything reduces to matter even though we don’t really know what matter is.

We have these problems and we look at matter. Is light a wave or a particle? What about the observer effect? All that is just kind of brushed aside and the idea is everything is reducible. Before we jump into talking about Idealism, what are some of the other problems that we run into when we try to hold onto this notion of Realism?

Bernardo Kastrup: Well, if you look at physics, every branch of science has a tendency to self-negate at some point. It happened with mathematics, for instance. The project of Hilbert with Principia Mathematica to ground all mathematics in very strict and clear axioms, that failed. Gödel has shown that logic is inherently limited or contradictory. So if you pursue any branch of investigation to its ultimate conclusions, to its ultimate implications, it backfires on you.

The same happened with Realism and physics in a way. Through the assumption of Realism we started looking at certain phenomena in physics, namely quantum entanglement, and through a series of experiments, for instance, from 1981 culminating in 2007-2008, we’ve shown that it is untenable to claim that the states of the physical world are independent of mind.

That has been published actually in Nature, I think. Nature, Volume 446, Spring of 2007. It’s a very cryptic technical paper but the conclusion is: Realism is either false or has to be redefined in a very counter-intuitive way, in which case you might ask yourself, “Why continue calling it Realism, anyway?”

So in a way, Realism self-contradicts if you pursue it to its ultimate implications. This is happening already although the repercussions are extremely limited to a narrow group of scientists that understand the esoteric mathematics and the esoteric physics behind it, which is a pity. So it’s a problem. There is a huge problem with Realism today. It’s not considered yet defeated but it’s quite precarious for it.

Alex Tsakiris: Okay, I’m sorry. Now go on and tell us about Idealism.

Bernardo Kastrup: So Idealism is a more skeptical philosophy. I think the problem with skeptics today is that they’re not skeptic enough about their own paradigm of thought, their own hidden assumptions. The assumption behind Realism is that, okay, you create a model of the world, namely matter, energy, and space-time; you project an independent reality of that model; and then you try to reconstruct your own primary experience back from that projected model. So there is a forward and a backward movement. It’s not parsimonious at all. There are lots of assumptions being made in that.

Idealism is much simpler. Idealism in a way is the philosophy of a five-year-old kid. A five-year-old kid looks around and what does he or she see? He sees images. Images in consciousness. That’s the primary data of experience. That’s the carrier of reality as far as anyone can ever know. Images in consciousness.

So the Idealists start from that. That is irreducible. I don’t even need to explain that. This is what exists, images in consciousness. Everything else is an abstraction. And then I work with abstractions to try to make sense of my empirical experiences, be it scientific measurements, scientific experiments, or personal experiences. So for Idealism, nature itself isimages in consciousness, everything else is an abstraction that we try to use to make sense of what we experience.

Alex Tsakiris: Right, but as you point out, the problem with Idealism is that we keep getting pulled back into this model of the world that seems to work pretty darn well. We drop the pencil off the desk and it falls down every time. We wake up and without being conscious and everything is still the way that it was. So what are some of the problems with Idealism?

Bernardo Kastrup: You alluded to them. These are the problems with Idealism. One is the continuity of the world: we wake up to where the world has gone, apparently without us being conscious, since we last went to sleep. That’s a problem for Idealism.

The other one is the consistency of experience. If you have 10 people look at waves on a shore, they will all report the same thing, save for minor differences. So there is a consistency in our experience of ordinary reality, which is a problem for Idealism because if it’s all only the mind, how come we are all experiencing the same thing?

The way to get out of these apparent contradictions is to really get away from the hidden assumptions of Realism. We are so contaminated by Realism that we assume that minds are inside brains, and since brains are separate how come we are all experiencing the same thing? These brains are not communicating, right? So that’s where the problem comes from. It’s these hidden assumptions of Realism.

In Idealism, if you’re really consistent with it, the brain is in the mind, not the mind in the brain. The brain is an object of experience. I can hold a brain in my hands and it’s an image. It’s part of the images of consciousness. That is in the mind, not the other way around. Maybe the other way around to some extent, but the starting assumption is that the brain is an object, an image in consciousness.

Nonetheless, the Idealist still has to explain the continuity and the consistency of the world across subjects. There are many ways, I think, to model and to tentatively explain that, many hypotheses that could make sense of that.

One is that reality, and even physics, could be an emergent property of the interactions between localized minds. I speak ‘emergence’ in the technical sense, in systems theory; an emergent property of interactions between minds, just like sand ripples are an emergent property of the interaction between individual grains of sand on a dune.

Another hypothesis is that the mind we ordinarily experience is restricted to the ego, but our true minds are much broader, as depth psychology has empirically already inferred. Maybe these other segments of our minds that we are not ordinarily cognizant of, they have creative power as well, as far as projecting reality. And Jungians consider that there is a part of the mind that is collective:the collective unconscious. That collective part could explain the consistency of experience, if you go that far. That’s something I talk about in my third book.

Now the Realist, in my view, has a much more serious problem to deal with. The Idealist has to explain the continuity and consistency of experience. There are many models to do that. The Realist has to explain how conscious experience can emerge from unconscious matter. That’s a much more fundamental jump. It’s called the “Explanatory Gap,” or the “Hard Problem of Consciousness.” It’s much more difficult, much more fundamental.

So whichever philosophy you pick, you have a hard problem to solve. I’d rather solve the problems of Idealism. I think they’re much more amenable to rational thought.

Alex Tsakiris: Yeah, I’d agree. I think it’s interesting to bounce back and forth between the theory and then the practical applications on a bunch of different levels. The practical applications in science and some of the scientific problems that it might solve, but also the practical applications in culture and how we form things. I can already hear the voices of the other side immediately attacking the theory and “Well, that theory duh, duh, duh,” and it’s like, “Well, wait a minute.”

I love the way you position it and say yes, these theories make us uncomfortable and may seem counter-intuitive but we have to realize just how absurd the theory is that we are living under and the paradigm is that we’re living under. So I want to read another quote from your writing because this point, I think, about the absurdity just cannot be stressed enough. We really have to pound that home because we get exactly the opposite message.

Here’s the quote:

“The fact that our culture as a whole has adopted the assumption that reality is separate from our minds[H1] makes it easy for anyone to adopt the same assumption without looking like a fool. We find ourselves in a cultural context wherein an extraordinary form of self-deception has gained legitimacy. But then again, that we are collectively mad does not make it any less concerning that we are mad.”

So talk a little bit about that, Bernardo.

Bernardo Kastrup: Well, it’s part of human nature, right? It’s very easy for us to adopt very counter-intuitive beliefs, beliefs that are not grounded on empirical evidence, if they are shared by our peer group. You just need to look at cultures around the world and see the different things they believe in and from our point of view they all seem crazy.

But everyone of us has a huge blind spot, which is the craziness of our own worldview because we cannot look at it from the outside. We are immersed in it. It’s like asking the fish to explain what water is. We can’t. We are immersed in it. It’s very difficult and I don’t blame anyone if they can’t do that. It’s very difficult to abstract from your own paradigm of thought and realize how mad your views about the world may be.

I personally have arrived at this conclusion that to believe that reality is out there, even if nobody is looking, is extreme madness. It’s an enormous leap of faith. Anyone with a pinch of skepticism should look very critically at that. And yet that’s the paradigm we live in and I don’t think anybody is to blame. It has emerged to become like this as a reaction to what was seen, during the Enlightenment, as a culture of superstition. But the pendulum oscillated very, very far to the other side and today we are living the consequence of that.

You know, you were talking about practical applications. If I can talk a little bit about that for a minute, ultimately Idealism does not depart—on a practical, operational level—it does not depart very much at all from Realism. The predictions could be the same. Physics would still hold. It’s just that matter is something in the mind. It doesn’t exist objectively. So operationally, and in terms of the development of technology, not much would change; at least not in the short term. The consistency would be very large.

But there is one point of departure that is massive and has huge philosophical implications and huge implications for the way we live our lives, which is: according to Realism, if mind is generated by the brain, then it’s over when the brain decomposes when you die.

And according to Idealism, even though the operational consequences are pretty much the same, when the brain decomposes mind is free. It doesn’t end. It’s the opposite. That has enormous implications for how we live every day of our lives. It is a pity that our madness has brought us to this very cynical, negative, almost desperate way of living our lives.

Alex Tsakiris: In the time that we have left, why don’t you take us through briefly your three books? I have not had a chance to read them but they look absolutely amazing. Take us through the books and what we might find in them.

Bernardo Kastrup: The first book is called, Rationalist Spirituality. It was the first book I wrote and the attempt in that book is to look at what we know in science today, to look at what we know in philosophy today, and to try to derive what could be a hypothesis for the meaning of existence. Why is this all going on? Is there one; and if there is, what could it be based on science, based on logic, rationality, and so on.

The second book is more empirical. It’s called, Dreamed Up Reality and it explores the idea of what one might perceive if one can dampen down the filters of consciousness operating inside the brain. What could be that broader reality and how could one try to perhaps model that in a way, develop a language, and talk about it?

That’s the attempt I have made. I even used some computer simulations to try to articulate a model and articulate the implications of that model in a way that one could talk about it. I don’t mean that that model is correct. I don’t even call it a theory; I call it a hypothesis. I just try to start a conversation.

And the third book, that was out in December last year, is called Meaning and Absurdity and the hypothesis there is: could logic itself be an artifact of this narrow tunnel of reality that we’ve come to live in? Could the inherent degrees of freedom of nature be much broader than what is considered acceptable by classical logic? By bivalent logic?

And if that is the case, to what extent could that explain what we call “absurd phenomena?” What people throughout ages have reported as things that are impossible on the face of it because they violate logic, not only physics. Could there be some grounding for that? So that’s what I try to explore in the third book.

Alex Tsakiris: Fascinating. People can also find you on your blog and you reference a lot of the work of your writing in your blog, as well. Is that right? Can you tell us a little bit about the blog and what else you’re doing these days?

Bernardo Kastrup: My writing is actually a parallel life. It’s largely my hobby. I’m still working in high technology marketing. The blog is www.bernardokastrup.com. I basically write down there my most recent thoughts and my most recent ideas.

Participating in the forum of Skeptiko has been very interesting for me because it’s forced me to articulate some of those ideas in a better way than I ever have done before because of the smart people there in the forum. I’m having a lot of fun there, too.

And there are links to the books, links to articles, and links to videos. It’s all in there.

Alex Tsakiris: Great. Well, Bernardo, it’s been just delightful having you on. You have so many stimulating ideas. I think since you like the forum you’re going to get quite a response in our forum from this interview. I look forward to seeing what you have to say.

Bernardo Kastrup: I’m looking forward to that, too.

Alex Tsakiris: Thanks again for joining us.

Bernardo Kastrup: Thanks a lot, Alex. It’s been a pleasure.