Dr. Bernardo Kastrup on the growing acceptance of his controversial theories of consciousness.
photo by: Skeptiko
Today we welcome Dr. Bernardo Kastrup back to Skeptiko. Bernardo is the author of several books on consciousness and has created quite a stir with his recent articles in Scientific American:
Alex Tsakiris: These people will be recognized by people in my community as skeptics or as materialists, but these people are just generally regarded as scientists, as mainstream scientists. We’re talking about Richard Dawkins, Lawrence Krauss, Neil deGrasse Tyson. Neil deGrasse Tyson, whether we like it or not, is the face of science for many, many, many Americans, so let’s see what mainstream science has to say about consciousness.
Here we go, I’m going to play this clip. You can see it there, I’m going to play it.
Richard Dawkins: But you can say something about the question which you really would wish to know the answer to, and for me it would be, what’s consciousness, because that’s totally baffling.
Neil de Grasse Tyson: Richard, you know what I think, not that you ask, but what I think on this is, consciousness has, kind of, baffled us for a while and evidence that we haven’t a clue about what consciousness is, is drawn from the fact of, how many books are published on the topic. We’re not really continuing to publish books, not really, on Newtonian physics, it’s done. So, the fact that people keep publishing books on consciousness is the evidence we don’t know anything about, because if we knew all about it, you wouldn’t have to keep publishing.
So, what I wonder, what I wonder Richard is, whether there really is no such thing as consciousness at all and that there’s some other understanding of the functioning of the human brain that renders that question obsolete.
Bill Nye: To that I’ve got to say like, oh wow!
Alex Tsakiris: I’m laughing, but what is so funny about that.
Bernardo Kastrup: The idea that maybe consciousness is not there is probably the weirdest, stupidest idea every conceived by human thought. I mean, where does thought take place? It takes place in consciousness. So, here we have consciousness, speculating about the possibility that consciousness does not exist and it may not be there. I mean, the very thought is an in your face contradiction and the fact that something like this is not only seriously entertained, but even verbalized with a public with the public exposure of the gentleman we just saw, is a worrying sign of cultural sickness, a very serious one.
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Alex Tsakiris: The other thing that got me, and I hope you just comment on, because you are a philosopher and an expert in logic and in your books you do a wonderful job of deconstructing the silliness down to a level that is extremely comprehensive and well thought out, but the book thing I thought was just stunning. What kind of logic that? They’re not writing any books about physics? And he’s saying Newtonian physics. I think, first of all, books? You mean papers, don’t you? You mean peer reviewed published papers, and aren’t they doing a lot of work on gravity and issues in physics that are central to all this? It’s preposterous at so many levels. Again, it’s just really, really funny.
Bernardo Kastrup: Well, to his credit say the Newtonian Laws, so classical Newtonian physics.
Alex Tsakiris: I guess this is kind of interesting in that we build on these laws. No one has said that the laws of Newtonian physics are “wrong”, they’re just incomplete, they just describe a certain aspect of what we observe, and the same could be said for this insistence that consciousness is physical, biological, or brain-based, all those things are not wrong per se, they’re just incomplete, in terms of our understanding of consciousness. If consciousness is, as we’ll talk about, somehow fundamental, then everything gets turned on its head, but that doesn’t mean that there aren’t some neural correlates to consciousness and brain function.
So, that’s why I think it just shows a deep misunderstanding, I guess would be generous, of what they’re really talking about, when he talks about consciousness.
Bernardo Kastrup: I think what motivates even the question, because you see how they formulated the question, how Richard Dawkins formulated the question, he said, “What is consciousness?” And what they’re trying to get at is a reduction. What you’re trying to answer, the form of the answer they’re looking for is, “Consciousness is just this and that operating in this or that way under this and that condition.” In other words, they are trying to explain consciousness in terms of something else, in terms of something that isn’t consciousness. That would be the answer to the question, what is consciousness? And that is indeed a baffling question, because you see, who is trying to answer? It is consciousness that is trying to answer.
So, you get the self-reference there that makes the question indeed very baffling if you’re framing it that way, if you’re trying to reduce consciousness and that’s where it goes wrong. Nobody, well, very few people have stopped to think that, “Maybe we shouldn’t formulate the question that way. Maybe what we have to ask is, how can we explain everything ese in terms of consciousness? Which is the given of reality, it’s the basis of knowledge, it’s that within which we know and enquire.
Alex Tsakiris: I’d almost suggest that that’s step two. Step one is to properly frame the borderline between science and philosophy, which is, again, something you just wonderfully do, and we’ll give people a sense for how you process this stuff in your books.
Let me share a quote, and if you would, be so kind as to read this for us. A quote from one of your books. Do you want to take a minute and look that over and see if it’s okay to read that?
Bernardo Kastrup: Capturing observable patterns and regularities of elements of reality, relative to each other, is an empirical and scientific question, but pondering the fundamental nature of these elements is not, it is a philosophical question.
This is not mine, this is a realization. Russell said something like over a hundred years ago. This is well-known, it’s not something that I came up with.
Alex Tsakiris: It is quintessentially yours. I don’t care if somebody said it a hundred years ago, you have five books that so eloquently deconstruct it and reintroduce it to the discussion that is ongoing that these nitwits, like we just saw, are fumbling over. I think it is completely yours. I don’t care who else…
But please, tell us about that divide between why science can’t reach that.
Bernardo Kastrup: The scientific method is largely an empirical method, it’s based on observation and when we observe nature, what we are observing is the behavior of nature. When we see a billiard ball hit another, that’s a behavior of matter and what science then does, it analyses these observations and tries to exact the patterns and regularities of the behavior of physical nature, as it presents itself on the screen of perception, conscious perception.
So, at the end we end up with predictive models of nature’s behavior. We know that if we put things together this and that way, we will get this and that effect, and these predictive models are the heart of technology, we use these models to develop technology, because we know how nature behaves, and then we can put that behavior to use, to our advantage and because of the success of technology, science has acquired enormous cache in our culture as the enabler of the technologies that extend and improve our lives.
This is all fair enough, but science says nothing about the intrinsic nature of the physical, it only analyses behavior in differential terms, in terms of patterns of differences, bare differences, for instance: What is a positive electric charge? Is it that which is not a negative electric charge, because it behaves in a symmetrical opposite way, that’s all science does. But what is a charge, intrinsically, what is the nature of a charge? Science has nothing to say about it, it’s fundamentally outside of the scope of the scientific method.
Bernardo Kastrup: I think, before we even get to extraordinary experiences and the paranormal, there is a challenge here to explain the normal, the ordinary, because the ordinary and the normal are not explained under mainstream physicalism or mainstream materialism. There is not explanation for why we feel the qualities of experience, why we see red, why we feel warmth, why we feel disappointment. There is nothing about mass, momentum, charge, spin, in terms of which we could deduce phenomenal properties, what we experience in consciousness.
So, there is an enormous gap for explaining the normal, that’s why I focus on the normal, since the paranormal is the next step, we haven’t explained even the normal yet.
Alex Tsakiris: I’m totally with you, until the last part that you said, I might take issue with that, but I take it one step further and point out something like memory, because we really don’t understand memory, right? We don’t understand what’s going on, and memory is a tricky one because it’s one that all the neurology folks, all the mind equals brain, materialist science says, “No, no, we really have a handle on memory, we just need to drill down a little bit further.”
So, if you can, speak to memory being another one. So, yeah, we don’t understand how we experience red or how we experience love, but even this thing memory, they think they’ve nailed, but they don’t understand it.
Bernardo Kastrup: No. If you look at the literature coming out, claiming to explain memory, it’s all self-contradictory. Some explain memory in terms of large networks of neurons. Others try to explain memory in terms of interneuron processes. Things are all over the place.
I can mention one concrete example. There was a study published a couple of years ago, claiming to have found the key to memory, based on experiments with mice. They exposed the mouse to a certain experience in one environment, they moved the mouse to another environment, and then they would trigger that memory artificially and the mouse would behave as if it were in the first environment, and then, “Oh, we’ve figured out how memories are created.”
If you go through the details, what they did was, they grew some cellular switches in the brain of the mice, that they could then identify which neurons fired up when the mouse was exposed to the first experience in environment A. So, they had the map of all of the neurons that activated at that moment, in environment A, and they moved the mouse to environment B, and which a specific technique using light, they could artificially reactivate the same neurons as the mouse was in environment A, and guess what? The mouse behaved as if it were in environment A.
Now, who recorded and recalled the memory? The scientists, through this cellular technique, through exposing the neurons to light, creating the cellular switches in the neurons and recording which neurons were activated in the first situation, and then reactivating them artificially in the second situation. That doesn’t show at all how memory works. To show how memory works, we would have to figure out where the mouse stores the pattern of activated neurons without these artificial cellular switches and exposure to light that the scientists created.
So, what you see being claimed in the science press about having understood memory, it’s extremely exaggerated, we don’t understand memory.
Alex Tsakiris: Let’s give for people, maybe a counter potential explanation for how that might work. It could also relate to, if anyone is familiar with epigenetics, which in a similar way, kind of, blows all of this craziness about brain-based consciousness and consciousness being 100% brain-based, modern understanding of epigenetics blows that away.
But in your mice example, we could take something like Sheldrake’s morphogenetic fields if you wanted to, or any other understanding we have of consciousness in the cloud, and that some certain patterns, some certain arrangement of physical neurons is then able to re-access that, would be potential beginning of an explanation. Am I getting, kind of, where you’re coming from there?
Bernardo Kastrup: Perhaps. I don’t really have a firm opinion on that.
Alex Tsakiris: It doesn’t matter, just there are some other ways that we could get there, right?
Bernardo Kastrup: Absolutely. Absolutely, and they may have to do with the nature of time itself. To guess here, what memory might be, I would just be speculating. I don’t really have an intelligent answer to that question.
Alex Tsakiris: Fair enough, and I think it’s important to say that maybe one of the reasons you don’t is because, once we jump into that, consciousness is fundamental mindset, everything we’re going to say back about explaining this, winds up being this, kind of, backdoor materialism, as I call it, where we wind up coming back to using some kind of mechanical materialist explanation for things that we wanted to get away from in the first place, but we don’t have the language to really make that leap and we’re confined by a language and our shared experience to explain what’s going on.
So, I really like that you pulled up, in terms of not jumping to a definitive answer and hopefully people will get a sense for two things. One, how difficult it is and how hamstrung scientists are. That’s why they wind up saying all these silly things, because it’s hard to say anything that can’t be contradicted, once you make this paradigm, this ontological shift. Do you have any thoughts on that?
Bernardo Kastrup: I want to just make a comment on something you said, because I think you were very correct. Once we are, sort of, addicted to a certain pattern of thinking, that grows out of materialist assumptions, it’s very difficult to kick the habit. Even if you conceptually convince yourself that, “Hey, materialism just doesn’t cut the mustard, maybe idealism, this consciousness as a fundamental thing, maybe that’s the best avenue to make sense of nature.”
Even if you’re conceptually convinced of that, we end up falling back into old patterns of thinking that have been inculcated in us through education, through the media, everywhere. It’s a habit, it’s very difficult to kick. You have to be very alert to your own patterns of though to see when you’re falling into that trap again.
Alex Tsakiris: Okay, so I have to bring you back to the question at hand though, because I do think the fringes offer us some clues, some insights, in terms of testing our ideas and our theories. So, in this case I would take issue with you. I think the extraordinary experiences; the paranormal experiences do two things. One, they test the theory at its edges, but it also challenges our idea of what normal is. I mean, if there is an extended realm where near-death experiencers go and people who use psychedelics go and when they go there they say, “ET was there, and he said, ‘Why did it take you so long?’” If people in reincarnation scenarios, either between lives or in past lives, are accessing these extended consciousness realms, which we don’t understand, we can’t begin to map out, we can’t even map out our own, let along theirs, then maybe there’s something there that will add to this discussion.
And I also think that the second part of this, which we didn’t talk about is important too, in that there are a lot of wisdom traditions who have told us exactly this, and they’ve gone one step further and they’ve said, “What you need to do is, kind of, look past that. Don’t get too hung up on the spirits, the aliens, the extended consciousness realms, which are out there, because they’re just another little ground to some place else that you want to get to,” which introduces a whole bunch of other questions about purpose, direction, why.
There’s a lot on the table there, go ahead and have at it.
Bernardo Kastrup: Well, if you look at the extraordinary things that you mentioned on the less and these spirits, I think with the exception perhaps of aliens, they all have one thing in common, which is that consciousness doesn’t stop upon physical death, the death of the body, and that is something that is inherit indeed to idealism. If consciousness is fundamental, if it’s not just an epiphenomenon or something generated or constituted by particular arrangements of matter in the form of a brain, and if those arrangements then dissolve, then consciousness dissolves as well. If instead, consciousness is fundamental, then it cannot disappear, because it’s what there is, it has nowhere to go, it has nowhere to disappear into. It’s that out of which everything arises. So, consciousness itself cannot disappear.
Alex Tsakiris: Okay, he just threw the whole ball of wax there. I just want people to know, because I’ve investigated this, and we say conspiracy theory, because that’s what we’ve been taught to say, no this is just true. Wilbert Smith is the Canadian at the highest level in the government whose memo, he didn’t disclose the top secret memo, it was revealed in a freedom of information act, where he said, “Here, I’ve gone to the United States, I’ve met with these top level people, Vannevar Bush,” he names the names because it’s a secret memo and he said, “Their highest priority is this UFO thing and they’ve come to understand there’s a mental phenomenon associated with it.”
All this stuff is not conspiracy, it’s just fact, it’s the way it is. In terms of MKUltra and remote viewing it is just like he said, just like I said a minute ago, we can only conclude that that was a direct response to our government saying, “Hey, we got to get on this consciousness thing. This is where things are really happening.”
So, isn’t it interesting that here Grant Cameron is saying, “Consciousness is fundamental.” They’ve known consciousness is fundamental for the longest time.
Where does this take us, in terms of the technology that might be associated with this? The deeper understanding in science, we’re talking philosophy and all this, what might they know that we don’t know, in terms of manipulating this at a different level, from a different perspective? Any thoughts on any of that?
Bernardo Kastrup: My tendency would be to… People who deal with national security, they tend to be very pragmatic people. I think it’s less a matter of them knowing that idealism is true than them not knowing that physicalism is true. In other words, they don’t make that bet, they are not married to any specific philosophy, any specific ontology. For them, what matters is what works, what is effective, and they are open to all possibilities. They are not going to restrict themselves based on a materialistic belief, because the other side may not be imposing on themselves that restriction and make progress and be ahead. They cannot take that risk, so they have to be open.
In that openness, they indeed may make advances that ordinary science wouldn’t make, because in academia, “Well of course, physicalism must be true, so why are we going to research remote viewing, why are we going to research this and that? We know that it cannot happen, we’re not going to get a grant anyway, so why bother?” And these guys are not restricted in that way, they have the money and they cannot marry themselves to a certain belief without being absolutely sure that it’s true and nobody can be sure that materialism is true.
So, I think it’s less a matter of really knowing what’s going on and it’s more a matter of being pragmatic and not closing doors and just exploring.
Now, if that did happen, and has been happening for decades, if they have not been imposing on themselves the limitations that mainstream academia does impose on itself, then who knows where they might be.
Alex Tsakiris: Yeah, that’s something to ponder because the other side of this, that you touched on there, and I’m going to see if I can pull anything else out of you, any other thoughts that you have, might we be able to engineer, you’re an engineer as well as a philosopher as well as a thinker, might we be able to engineer some of these aspects of consciousness that we haven’t looked at engineering, because we’ve had our model wrong?
Bernardo Kastrup: Absolutely. Categorically yes.
Alex Tsakiris: What are some of your thoughts in terms of what might happen, could happen? Where could that lead us, not just in the dorky telepathy mindreading stuff, but in terms of time travel, in terms of massive communication with other worlds, other realms? It just is almost limitless in terms of where that could go in its potential.
Bernardo Kastrup: You list concrete applications. Where this could bring us is to spaces that wouldn’t even fit this category of concrete applications in the realm of insights that would render these applications almost like child’s play. The space, when it’s opening here, is broader than our implicit philosophy of language allows us to see and contemplate verbally, even if it’s inside our heads.
My first article on Scientific American last year was about this correlation between deep transcended insight, transpersonal experience and reduced brain activity and you see that correlated. So, there’s a pattern correlating this to things. It’s very widespread. It’s not only psychedelics that have been shown since 2012 that…
Alex Tsakiris: Can I ask you to break that down a little bit for folks? Break it down in terms of specific examples that we could touch and feel, because this is the deep spirituality part that we wanted to talk about, in a way.
Bernardo Kastrup: Many things that people associate with deep spiritual insight come together with a reduction in brain activity and we have known this, mostly recently. For instance, there are some breathing techniques, you breathe very fast, as some Yoga techniques, and what that does, it increases the alkalinity level of your blood, causes constriction of blood vessels in your brain, metabolism reduces in your brain to the point that you may pass out, if you breathe too fast. That’s why, when people are hyperventilating, they breathe in a bag to reduce oxygen intake. So, there is a reduction in brain activity associated with those Yogic practices that are supposed to lead you to greater insight.
Teenagers, worldwide, play this very dangerous game called, The Choking Game. They partly strangulate themselves to the point of almost passing out and then they have these transcendent experiences that are considered very pleasurable or very cool, whatever.
We know, for instance, for the past few years that what psychedelics do, they don’t light up your brain, they actually significantly reduce brain activity. We have known that since 2012. It has been confirmed multiple times now. The last paper published by the University of Zurich was published late last year.
Alex Tsakiris: Tell people about that paper if you would, or the paper that David Nutt published a few years prior, what they did, because I think that’ll just, case closed for folks.
Bernardo Kastrup: There are several papers published by the Imperial College, the group of David Nutt. They basically take subjects, they measure their brain activity in an FMRI brain scanner, that’s the baseline brain activity, they inject folks with a psychedelic substance, it could be psilocybin or DMT or LSD and they continue to measure the brain activity as the substance takes effect and then they ask people to report on their experiences as their brain activity is being monitored. So, they can correlate the original baseline with the drug taking effect, with the subjective reports of the subject describing the intensity and the richness of their experiences.
What they found is that the richer and more intense the experience they report, the lower is the brain activity that’s measured, to the point that one can predict the other. We can predict how much lower brain activity is based on how rich and intense the report of the experience is.
Alex Tsakiris: And this is really basic, but why is that a surprise? What does that FMRI normally look like when we’re super excited, super thinking, all that?
Bernardo Kastrup: Well, there has also been a neuroimaging study, a few years ago, done in Japan. They put people having dreams inside an FMRI and it turns out that even simple dream experiences, like a dream of watching a statue, leads to identifiable activations in brain activity. Brain activity goes up when you experience something, to the point that you can even predict what the experience was, and with psychedelics, which are incredibly intense experiences, the opposite seems to happen, which is surprising.
Before all of this came out, in 2012, we thought that psychedelics would light up the brain like a Christmas tree, because under materialism, experience is brain activity or at least generated by brain activity. So, if you have a richer and a more intense experience, you would expect more intense brain activity. It turns out that the opposite is what is observed in a psychedelic trance.
And it’s not only psychedelics, I already mentioned a couple of other examples. There’s also been a study in Brazil of spirit mediums, which is a subject I know you’re interested in. They took experienced mediums who were willing to do psychography, in other words to write down information that’s supposedly comes from a transcendent source, from another spiritual world, whatever it is, that they claim. They realized that experienced mediums, when they are psychographing, their brain activity, in areas of the brain involved with writing, thinking and writing, is reduced. Then they did controls, they asked these mediums, without psychographing, just to write text in the same brain scanner and the text they wrote scored lower in a measure of complexity than the text they wrote while they were in a trance, and it should have been the opposite, because in the trance, the areas that would activate for you to write complex text were actually deactivated while they were in a trance.
So again, you have this correlation of richer, more complex experience associated with reduction of brain activity in key cognitive regions.
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