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materialism is baloney

Bernardo Kastrup’s cheeky title here belies a serious book. It looks at the prevailing world view of materialist philosophy and uses materialism’s own logic to argue that it is self-contradictory, and leads to absurd conclusions. What this means is the view most of us have of the world, a place of “common sense” material stuff, is wrong. It also means none of the problems facing science and society today can be resolved from a materialist perspective. Why? Because the world is not what it seems, and neither are we.

Materialism is a mindset that looks at the mysteries of the universe and assumes everything is ultimately knowable through scientific reasoning. More, it tells us everything can be explained in material terms, even apparently immaterial things like consciousness. But the problems of materialism begin with quantum mechanics. This is the study of the nature of the foundations of what we think of as material stuff, or “matter”. But quantum mechanics also tells us matter cannot be said to exist until it is observed. This is awkward to say the least, and we get around the problem in daily life by politely ignoring it. Clearly though, there’s a gap in our thinking, and it will have to be reckoned with sooner or later.

The alternative view, one that might reconcile these paradoxes and explain the nature of consciousness, is philosophical idealism. Here Kastrup builds on the works of Emanuel Kant and Arthur Schopenhauer, and brings them forward into the twenty-first century. I’m not qualified to say whether he’s right or not, only that his views support the direction of my own thinking. His robust reasoning also provides a reassuringly intellectual rigour to what might otherwise, admittedly, seem a very strange way of looking at things.

Although a serious book, I found it engaging and accessible, but you’ll still need your wits about you, because the concepts here are so startling. Through the use of metaphor Kastrup introduces us to the idea of the universe as an infinite “thought”, that the material world is a phenomenon dreamed up by the consciousness of the universe itself. This is not to say the universe is “intelligent” or capable of self reflection, more that it is somehow blindly instinctive in bringing to fruition what we perceive of as life.

Philosophers call such a thing “Transcendental Idealism”, and one cannot delve into that subject without also touching on spiritual matters. So, as well as covering the nature of the universe, the book also looks at the purpose of life. From the more familiar Materialist perspective, life is meaningless but Idealism begs to differ. Indeed, it grants humankind a primary role. It tells us we are the eyes and the ears of a universe waking up and exploring its own nature the only way it can – by enfolding parts of its self into discrete pockets of self-reflective awareness. That’s us. Otherwise, the universe would be like an eye trying to see itself.

When we dream we accept the dream entirely as our reality, and it’s only when we wake we gain sufficient perspective to see the dream for what it was. In the same way, in the dream of the universe, we have no choice but to accept the dream of it as real. Indeed, it is real. It’s just that the nature of that reality is not what we think it is. It also means that ultimately we are the same as whatever we are looking at, because whatever is dreaming “it” into being, is dreaming us too. And equally startling, it means the sense of “I”, looking out through your eyes right now, is the same sense of “I” looking out though mine. The only difference between us, is our life story.

This book will appeal to anyone who finds the high-priests of materialism, and their more fundamentalist dogmas, a little too shrill. It will appeal also to anyone seeking to restore meaning to their lives but who are similarly repelled by religion, as well as finding the otherwise seductive language of the New Age at times somewhat anaemic. I think the world according Bernardo Kastrup is a very interesting one, and well worth exploring. It is both plausible and profoundly positive, building on a rich heritage of idealism, and putting us back at the very centre of a universe driven towards the creation of life.

Although essentially blind and instinctive, its evolutionary drift seems to be towards an awareness of itself, through us. So, while things may not be the way we think they are, what each of us sees and thinks and does, and feels in life,… about life,…

Really matters.

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philosophers

Idealist thinking in a material world

I do not believe all there is to the universe is physical material. I do not believe consciousness is the product of biochemical and electrical processes in the brain, nor that the brain is simply a computer made of meat. That’s the materialist position, the one generally held to be true, at least for simplicity’s sake, but you can only go so far with it.

Materialism explains much of the universe as we see it, at least the universe we perceive through our senses. But it does not explain the universe as it is “in itself”. Indeed, as we probeĀ  deeper into the nature of so-called matter, we find matter isn’t what we think it is.

Yet to question materialism goes against orthodoxy. It is to invite the scorn of debunkers and scientistic populists. Thus, scientism replaces religious dogma. And while people are no longer burned at the stake for espousing heretical views, we do have social media for the more metaphorical immolation of character and reputation. Fortunately I am not a career scientist. Nor am I concerned with overturning materialism. I seek only to understand our universe a little better, and my place within it.

The conclusion of centuries of materialistic analysis says there is no supreme being watching over us and life is essentially meaningless. It’s rather a bleak view, but I do have some sympathy with it – particularly the “God” bit. Indeed, it’s a challenge to hold to the idea of a supreme godly being when there is so much suffering in the world. But my own conclusion on that score is either there is no “God” or we have the wrong idea about what “God” is. So while I am repelled by materialists and their bleakness, I have no time for literalist religion either.

Where to then? Well, the only other avenue of enquiry is the philosophy of Idealism. Idealism suggests the universe is a mental phenomenon, something akin to a dream. It’s a controversial claim, first formalized by Plato, then taken up by the seventeenth century British philosopher and theologian George Berkeley, then by Kant, Schopenhauer and the later German Idealists. But after a good run, along with God, it fell very much out of fashion in the twentieth century, and has languished under the burning scorn of materialism ever since.

I’ve been coming back to it slowly through my novels and various life-experiences. Idealism allows the imagination greater leeway in exploring speculative realities, but it also better explains one’s relationship with life – the fact I do not feel like a computer made of meat, that I can be moved to awe in wild places, or by beauty, or poetry, that I can feel love for another human being.

The Lavender and the Rose, The Last Guests of La Maison du Lac, By Fall of Night, and the Inn at the Edge of Light, all these stories take as their point of departure the idea that the world is more than the senses perceive it to be. And if we wish to understand the life we’re living, we do well to approach the mind of the dreamer – at least to the extent that such a thing is possible.

One of the criticisms levelled against idealism is that if the universe is a dream, if we are dreaming our reality, then who are all these other people? Our reality then collapses into a solipsism. This is the extreme egoic viewpoint, that we are the only ones truly alive and aware in the universe, that we are simply imagining everyone else. But nobody said the universe is our “personal” dream. The dreamer dreams it for us, and dreams us, in it.

So, again, who is the dreamer? You can insert God here if you want. Others prefer “Big Mind” or “All that is”. But these are just words after all. Personally, I find the eastern notion of Dao less offensive to my sensibilities, but it’s better not to get too hung up about it.

To describe reality as a dream is, of course, to over-simplify it, and to provide ample ammunition for materialists to barge in and heap scorn upon us. But if the dream contains all the rules of an apparently solid, material reality, all the hurt and the pain and the fragility, as well as the joys and the beauty, then there is no reason to dismiss the idea as nonsensical.

Just as the personal dream convinces us of its reality, because we have no reference beyond it to conclude otherwise, so the big dream convinces us of a material, spatial, time bound universe, and our existence within it. It also answers some puzzles like how big and how old the universe is, though the answers are shocking, and we need to be sitting down before we contemplate them.

In the idealist view, concepts of time and space come as part of our toolkit for perceiving the universe of appearances, the same as with our senses and intuitions. They allow us to relate objects in space relative to one another, and place one event in time relative to another. But they do not define the universe as it is in itself. In the mind of the dreamer of reality, there is no time, no space. Therefore, the universe is not located anywhere. Time does not pass, nor was time ever begun. No “thing” actually exists, nor has it ever.

It’s the only way anything can be said to exist at all.

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philosophersWe start with Nietzsche and a few pop quotes, like: “god is dead” and “I am dynamite”. I don’t understand him, so I go back to his influences, namely Schopenhauer. But I don’t understand him either – plus he’s deeply morose and repulsively nihilistic. So I go back to Kant. Kant’s a bit more optimistic, but he’s also a life-time’s study. Even the Kant scholars are still arguing over what he wrote, and you’d think they would have settled him by now. So I step back to Aristotle, but I’m in a bit of a muddle, so rather than stepping back in time even more to Plato, I take a breath. Maybe philosophy’s not my thing at all.

The philosophers are certainly a breed apart. They don’t seem to add much to the ordinary life, but if you’re at all interested in what life’s about you can’t avoid them. They’re about “epistemology”, which is the theory of knowledge, and how we know things. And they’re about “ontology” which is the theory being, or meaning. They use a lot of other unfamiliar words as well, and when they run out of actual words, they make words up. Then they all have their take on “ethics” – that’s to say, how should we behave towards one another, and what is “good”?

They approach all this through logic. The Kantians tell us the faculties we’re born with are linked to what is knowable, and this comes out in language. So, by a process that resembles a cross between a word game, and basic algebra, they arrive at a story about what it means to be alive. More than that they try to get a handle on what it is we are alive in. I mean the universe – the nature of it, the nature of space and time, and being – in other words a creation story.

So it’s a big subject, but to the layman it’s difficult, or at least to me it is. Or maybe I’m too set in my ways now to squish my calcifying brain into a new way of thinking. I’m just this old engineer, steeped in deterministic ideas. I’ve always known they’re an incomplete model of the universe, because my teachers told me so. But they work at a practical level, so we use them to do things. And I’ve really liked being an engineer. We put a man on the moon – well not me – I was only nine at the time, but you know what I mean? There’s something satisfying about doing things, making things. As for proving something you can neither see nor touch, like the philosophers do, nor use in the process of making things, or doing things,… what’s the point of that? Well, it’s interesting. And if I have to wait another lifetime to be a philosopher, then so be it, and for now I’ll just skim this stuff, pick up what bits I can and make do.

If we skim Kant, we get the idea we can’t grasp the true nature of reality at all. All we’ve got are our senses, and a mind that’s structured in a certain way to intuit the universe. We can see things as they appear to us, but not how those things are in themselves. But the most challenging idea of all is what Kant says about space and time. He plays his word-game and deduces that space and time drop out of the equation altogether. They’re part of the perceptual toolkit we’re born with, which means we can never get a handle on the way things are when we’re not looking. This is not to say the world is an illusion. It’s just that the way we see it is the only way we can see it, while its true nature is hidden and unknowable.

This sounds like the opening of Dao De Jing, written in China two thousand years before Kant. It says what we can see and touch and put names to is not the same as the essence of those things in themselves. Chinese ideas were floating around in Europe at the time Kant was writing. They’re sophisticated philosophies because the Chinese got themselves organized into a literate culture early on. But to the semi-theocratic west, these were pagan ideas and it was dangerous for philosophers to make too much of them.

Still, I think it’s an important thing to know, this link, that two cultures, isolated, and thousands of years apart could come up with the same basic idea. It suggests they might have been on to something. But its also frustrating I’ve not the nous to make any more headway with it than that. I did try reading Kant’s “Critique of Pure Reason” once. I wanted to understand it, word for word, like I once understood fluid dynamics. But I couldn’t follow it in any meaningful depth. I was probably in my late thirties then, and no point trying again now.

Carl Jung read it when he was seventeen. He’d read Schopenhauer’s “Will and Representation” too. He understood both well enough to think he’d spotted a flaw in Schopenhauer’s reasoning. It’s schoolboys of that calibre who grow to influence in the world of thought. All laymen like me can do is hold on to their coat-tails, hoping for a line or two of poetry that will stick and sum things up for us.

Most of us don’t bother of course, and are no more enlightened in the philosophical intricacies than mud. Or maybe the essence of life and living are so obvious anyway, we don’t need to learn it from the philosophers, or perhaps it just doesn’t matter. Or should we be content to leave it to those cleverer than we are to make a difference in the world? But when you look at the way the west is disintegrating – our leadership and our key institutions – and how China has undergone repeated convulsions down the centuries, finally to evolve into an authoritarian techno-surveillance state, you wonder if more of us, east and west, shouldn’t be making a better effort with those philosophers after all.

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