Richard Gault reviews Bernardo Kastrup’s recent book, which aims to re-instate consciousness as the fundamental principle of reality
Bernardo Kastrup is a man with a mission. His mission is to persuade us that the current scientific view of the world is wrong– seriously wrong. Reality is not what we have been told it is. It is not fundamentally made up of material stuff despite the apparent evidence of our senses and the work of scientists. No, reality is simply and only consciousness clothed in many and varied guises. Expressed more formally, Kastrup argues against the prevalent philosophy of materialism or physicalism and argues for the philosophy of idealism.
He comes well equipped and well qualified for his self-appointed mission. He has a PhD in Computer Engineering and has worked as a research scientist at CERN, so he knows the physicalist paradigm from the inside and in depth. From science he turned to philosophy and a second PhD for work on ontology and the philosophy of mind. This unique combination of knowledge and experience has led to many publications. The Idea of the World – subtitled ‘A multi-disciplinary argument for the mental nature of reality’  – bundles together ten articles by him which have previously been published in academic journals spanning the fields of philosophy, neuroscience, psychology, psychiatry and physics between 2017 and 2018.
But even with all his intellectual resources and life experiences, it is no easy task that Kastrup has taken on. To succeed, he needs to overcome many obstacles and win many fights. The first of these is simply indifference. Who cares, for example, what the nature of the chair they sit on is? Whether it was made in China or came from IKEA, is plastic or wood, might be slightly relevant, but what the stuff that composes it ultimately is – atoms, quarks, superstrings or consciousness – is not a concern for most people.
Nevertheless, there is a small minority who do care and reflect on the deep questions which reality can appear to pose. Amongst these there are those who Kastrup will not need to persuade. Idealism as a philosophy has a long tradition stretching back to Plato; it may have withered but it has never entirely vanished. Many traditional spiritual beliefs, particularly the mystical ones, would find much to agree with in Kastrup’s book, I think.
So Kastrup focusses his attention on those who are interested in how the world works but do so assuming that it is made out of material and that explanations about it will be mechanistic. These are academic philosophers and scientists, particularly those whose work deals with fundamental questions about the structure of reality, about the mind and indeed about consciousness itself. If they can be convinced, then the radical transformation he is striving for will succeed. Ideas do filter out from universities to eventually become widely accepted and held to be common sense.
How can such scientists and philosophers be persuaded? Kastrup has recognised that he will only be listened to if he makes his arguments in a way which such people recognise as valid. He has to address them using their language and their own methodologies. How can he do this? The answer is, by having his work published in the very same academic journals in which his target audience present their own research findings. So for The Idea of the World, he has chosen only articles which have appeared in peer-reviewed academic journals, selecting those which are rated most highly within their respective discipline. By doing so, he shows that a broad range of scientists and thinkers are coming to acknowledge that there is merit in his argument that consciousness is the ground of all being. This in itself is an astonishing accomplishment. (For a short video in which he talks about his own journey to this point, see right or below.)
One and Three Chairs (1965), a conceptual art piece byJoseph Kosuth [/]. Image: via Wikimedia Commons
Why Reject Physicalism?
To persuade the sceptical, Kastrup attempts to do a number of things. He casts doubt on the prevailing belief in a material world, and demonstrates that an alternative way of understanding reality (everything is consciousness) is conceivable, offering evidence in support of this. He also explains why scientists and most people cling to materialism, even though it is demonstrably wrong, and finally he explains why we should make the effort to abandon a philosophy which in many ways has served us well for one which appears at variance with our normal experience.
Kastrup’s arguments actually rest on one small and simply expressed premise: experience is primary. That’s it. If we accept that all we know of the world is what we experience of it, then everything else must follow, according to him. And what follows is this: experience is not only primary, it is all there is.
In some ways, it is easy to accept that experience is primary. I know I am sitting on a chair because I feel it underneath me and can see it if I look at it. But immediately a questions arises: surely the reason I can experience it is because the chair is there to be experienced – there is a material chair supporting me and I can see it because light is bouncing off it into my eyes.
OK, Kastrup responds, let us consider this. You, the physicalist, say reality consists of two things – physical things (material objects and forces) and experiences; I, Kastrup, say there is only experience. In other words, there are two, alternative ways of understanding the world: one says the world is made up of matter (to be experienced) and mind (to experience); the other that there is only mind. Which of these is the better?
Kastrup goes to some lengths to acknowledge that the mind and matter ‘hypothesis’ does indeed accord with the most fundamental facts that we accept and science supports. For example, we all seem to live in the same world, there are laws of nature, there are direct correlations between a person’s experiences and measurable brain activity. But he also shows that the same facts are consistent with his hypothesis that there is only mind. He stresses that he is not arguing for solipsism – the idea that reality is simply what I have dreamed up. No, the reality I inhabit, I share with you. My mind did not create it and I cannot bend it to my will.
Given that we have two hypotheses, both of which explain the facts, which one should we choose? The well-established principle of Occam’s Razor [/] dictates that we pick the more parsimonious one, the one that requires fewer assumptions. Well, in this case I win, says Kastrup; I only need one ‘ontological primitive’ – namely, mind – whereas physicalists need two, mind and matter. Furthermore, by accepting that there is only mind, the notorious ‘hard problem of consciousness’ is dissolved. (See my previous article in Beshara Magazine for more on this). If there is a problem, it is not how does the material brain give rise to consciousness, but rather the converse: how, and indeed why, does mind give rise to the useful illusion of a material world?
A response by physicalists to the hard problem is a so-called ‘promissory’: although right now we do not know how material brains give rise to immaterial experiences, one day, following more research, we will. Kastrup’s response is to say: let’s suppose that you are correct: experiences are the product of brain activity. Then it should be expected that more experience would correlate with more brain activity, and conversely less brain activity with less experience.
Brain activity can be measured objectively and in general we can expect people to report their experiences truthfully. What is actually observed when brain activity is impaired, either by a trauma (brain injury), being close to somatic death, or the effects of psychedelics (which, contrary to what perhaps is commonly believed, do not stimulate the brain but subdue it)? All the evidence is that under all these different circumstances, subjects report heightened experiences – the very opposite of what a materialist theory would anticipate. Kastrup’s own theory, by contrast, does predict richer experiences when reduced brain function is impaired or reduced, as we will see.
Another problem eliminated is the one troubling panpsychists, ‘the subject combination problem’. Panpsychists acknowledge the reality of consciousness as something distinct from matter and propose that the smallest material things, such as atoms, do have a very limited consciousness. But atoms combine, and can combine to eventually form brains. A human subject’s sophisticated consciousness arises from the combination of many, much smaller consciousnesses, claim the panpsychists. But how? How can tiny consciousnesses merge to give a mind that can know art, music, science … ?
They cannot and do not, says Kastrup. The panpsychists’ error is to remain wedded to the idea that there is a reality to matter. They set consciousness within matter, but the truth is that matter, insofar as it has any meaning, is enclosed within consciousness. Panpsychism is fundamentally wrong – indeed a danger to a true understanding – as it threatens to perpetuate the materialist delusion.
Beyond noting that physicists themselves acknowledge that objective, observer-independent properties do not exist, Kastrup does not extend much effort to exposing what might be called the ‘material weaknesses’ of materialism, namely, the continuing failure to find the ultimate material building blocks of matter. Of course there are ideas and competing theories (quarks, bosons, banes, superstrings …) but as he remarks:
I do not know that subatomic particles outside and independent of the mind exist with the same level of confidence that I do know that the chair I am sitting on, which I am directly acquainted with through conscious perception, exists. (p.27)
So rather than focusing further on materialism’s weakness, he devotes himself to explaining how his theory makes sense.
Chladni vibrations on water. Kastup maintains that the richness of the universe arises from universal consciousness in a manner analogous to the way a musical note produces beautiful patterns in sand or water. Image: Gregory Malevich/Shutterstock
Consciousness as the Only Reality
Kastrup’s theory is radically monistic. The one and only real thing is consciousness; it is this in which and through which we experience. And there is only the one consciousness – universal consciousness. Now this has been the message of mystics through the ages, but how is the hard-headed philosopher or scientist going to understand this?
That reality is just one consciousness flies in the face of two apparently obvious and related facts. Firstly, my consciousness feels like my own consciousness and does not seem to be a part of this purported universal consciousness. Secondly, it seems that everyone I meet, to say nothing of cats and dogs, also has their own consciousness. There appear to be many consciousnesses, not just one. How can Kastrup reconcile these facts with his theory?
He does so by drawing on mathematics, systems theory, quantum theory and psychiatry. While he is dismissive of the panpsychist notion that consciousnesses can combine, he holds that consciousness itself can divide. Basically he argues that the one universal consciousness has divided or ‘dissociated’ into many individual consciousnesses, such as yours and mine. That a consciousness can divide is attested by rare but well documented cases of it happening to individuals, so that the one body becomes home to multiple conscious and independent ‘alters’. An especially telling example of Dissociative Identity Disorder is that of a German woman who exhibited both seeing and blind alters. EEG analysis revealed that she really was blind when her blind alter was present. So if a human consciousness can dissociate, so in principle can the much greater universal consciousness, he argues.
But if universal consciousness subdivides or dissociates, then each subdivision, or alter, necessarily has to be distinct and separate. To state the obvious, each alter requires a boundary, a demarcation, between its own interior consciousness and the outside which is everything else. Drawing on work in mathematics and systems theory, Kastrup identifies what features this boundary would have to have and concludes that it needs to be what systems theorists call a ‘Markov Blanket’.
The Markov Blanket. An alter – with an internal mental state r – interacts with its surrounding environment with the mental state Ψ – through the sensory (s) and active states (a) of its Markov Blanket. Image: The Ideal World, p.113
A Markov Blanket boundary must be permeable, meaning that it has to be possible for information to be exchanged between the dissociated alter’s consciousness and the external consciousness of ‘mind-at-large’. However, it needs to be much more than a clear window. The Markov Blanket has to actively filter what mind-at-large presents to an alter. It then has to re-present what is presented in a form which the consciousness of the alter can comprehend. What is more, it needs to able to comprehend safely. It is the crucial feature of a Markov Boundary that it has to shield the inner consciousness from the outer world by veiling it.
As Kastrup tells us, systems theorists and mathematicians have discovered that:
a hypothetical organism with perfect perception – that is, able to perfectly mirror the qualities of the surrounding external world in its internal states […] would dissolve into an entropic soup. To survive, organisms must […] represent the outside world in a compressed, coded form. (p.79)
This is the essential role of the Markov Blanket; it is the buffer between each of our individual dissociated consciousnesses and mind at large. Without its veil we would cease to exist. More familiarly, we can think of the Markov Blanket as comprising all our organs of perception and communication. Together these give us all we experience outside our (inner) consciousness. Kastrup therefore maintains that what we take to be the ‘physical world is the Markov Blanket. Everything else… is non-physical thought.’ (p.116). The chair I am sitting on is my Markov Blanket’s representation of the idea of this chair in the consciousness of mind-at-large.
These theoretical insights have been given support by the experimental work of Donald Hoffmann. He has shown that what we perceive is not reality as such. Rather our senses appear designed to recognise what is useful for survival rather than aiming to uncover truth, or as Hoffmann himself pithily summarises: ‘Perception is not about truth, it’s about having kids’. Hoffmann has demonstrated that if an organism were able to see things as they truly are, it would be doomed: ‘… natural selection drives true perceptions to swift extinction’.
But what about cases where the Markov Blanket is weakened, so that reality enters consciousness subject to less compression, less coding? Then people should experience more of reality, have a richer experience. And as we have already mentioned, Kastrup demonstrates that this is exactly what people with brain damage, those who have suffered a near death experience or those affected by psychedelics, report. Furthermore, when the Markov Blanket fails completely at death, dissociation necessarily ends. There can then be ‘… a reintegration of memory, identity and emotion lost at birth… an expansion of our felt sense of identity… enrichment of our emotional inner life’. (p.275)
The process by which universal consciousness could appear in my alter consciousness as nature or chairs or people Kastrup explains in terms of quantum field theory. He sees a correspondence between what physicists call the quantum field and what he names as mind. Where physicists think the physical world can ultimately be explained as ‘excitations of the quantum field’, he states that ‘it is equally valid to think of the dynamics of nature as being constituted by the excitations of universal mind’ (p.107). An alter’s mind also produces ‘excitations’ and it is the interaction of these two sets of excitations – an interference pattern – that yield the representation of a physical chair or whatever. These excitations can also appear to us as laws of physics, logic and mathematics.
Kastrup’s argument is that it is not the case that brain activity gives rise to our consciousness with its thoughts and perceptions, but that our thoughts and perceptions give rise to brain activity. The brain is but the Markov Blanket’s mediated impression of an individual’s consciousness, just as Kant’s ‘starry sky above’ is a face of universal consciousness. Indeed, Kastrup believes that ‘… the entire physical universe may be akin to a nervous system’(p. 65). Coincidence or not, there are remarkably close ‘unexplained structural similarities … between the universe at its largest scales and biological brains’ (p. 65).
A simulated matter distribution of the cosmic web (left) and the observed distribution of neurons in the cerebellum of the human brain (right), showing their remarkable similarity. Image: Nautil [/]
The Question of Meaning
Kastrup’s primary aim is to make the case that consciousness is the ‘ontological primitive’. But if we accept this, then clearly many questions arise. It would be beyond the scope of any one book to give all the answers but Kastrup does make a start.
An obvious question is why would universal consciousness dissociate? Or in simple terms, why bother to create us and the world we seem to inhabit? The answer that Kastrup gives is that doing so enhances experience for universal consciousness itself. Universal consciousness without dissociated alters is a consciousness which can only experience thought. Perception can only occur when there is something apparently other to be perceived. So by dissociating, universal consciousness enriches experience by supplementing thought with perception.
Of course there are more fundamental questions, such as what gave rise to universal consciousness. These are in principle unanswerable, Kastrup argues. Why? Because answers can only be given within a framework of space–time but this framework itself is a construct, a ‘kind of illusion’, so that ‘whatever reality precedes spacetime ontologically is unreachable by the human intellect’. (p. 253) So he believes that we are denied ultimate truths, but this is not a counsel of despair. The ‘penultimate truths’ we can access ‘… tell us something indirectly true about what reality is and how it works’ (p.254). This means that by his own admission, all that Kastrup tells us is at best indirectly true. Nevertheless, he maintains that it is closer to truth than the physicalists’ account.
So if idealism is closer to truth, why has materialism prevailed? And if it is not the full truth, should the average person continue to sit on their chair unconcerned whether it might be made out of plastic, atoms or consciousness? These two questions turn out to be connected because both are answered by focussing on meaning – or rather its absence.
Under the physicalist view of the world, things themselves have no intrinsic meaning. A chair is a chair. It does have an extrinsic meaning – it is meant to be sat on – but this is a meaning we have given it. Poets and lovers may evoke meanings in roses or sunsets, but such meanings are the products of their subjective imaginations or fantasies, not anything the rose or sunset has given to them. The world is essentially meaningless, though in the post-modern era meanings can be arbitrarily (and ultimately unsatisfyingly) assigned.
But life without real meaning is – well, meaningless. To overcome or bear this essential ennui, Kastrup argues that the intellectual elite have found comfort in the physicalist narrative. It ‘… provides a foundation for rationalising the choice of living an unexamined, superficial life’ (p.211). Research scientists can find self-esteem in their work and meaning in thinking their discoveries will immortalise them, for example. Kastrup cites studies which have shown that coming to terms with death in a meaningless world also leads to a search for ‘closure’. CERN’s Large Hadron Collider he sees as a:
multibillion dollar experiment […] whose primary purpose is to ‘close’ the Standard Model of particle physics […] an unprecedented effort to produce a causally complete unambiguous model of reality [… It] reflects the elites’ ego’s attempt to regain, through heightened closure, the meaning it lost along with religion. (p.217)
The Starry Night by Vincent Van Gogh. An example of what the world looks like when our Markov Blanket begins to reduce in effectiveness. Image: GL Archive [/] / AlamyStock Photo
The Re-enchantment of the World
But for those who are not of the elite, who sit on chairs unaware of or uninterested in scientific breakthroughs, multibillion experiments do not restore meaning to life. So what can? Kastrup’s answer is: the world itself. Once consciousness is accepted as the foundation of everything, then it can be understood that ‘the world is amenable to hermeneutics: it means something beyond its face-value appearances.’ There are meanings in the world which are not ‘mere personal projections, but actual properties of the world’ (p.233).
So one of the most valuable fruits of the alternative which Kastrup offers is a re-enchantment of the world, which would be of benefit to every chair-sitter. Another virtue is that his ideas (re-) legitimise the teachings of the spiritual traditions, to which he is not afraid to refer, finding parallels between his alternative and paths such as Taoism, the Hermetic tradition, ‘ancient Islamic mysticism’, Advaita Vedanta and medieval scholastics (pp.234–6).
However, whilst those who subscribe to a traditional spiritual belief can find novel, additional support for their views in Kastrup’s work, their understanding of God and Kastrup’s are likely very different. For him, Universal Consciousness ‘is what it is’ and little more. It is unlikely to be especially aware of us nor engage in thought as we do. Simple self-excitation within it was enough to bring about the richness of the universe in a manner analogous to the way a Chladni Plate reveals beautiful patterns of sand moved by a single musical note (p.242). There is no notion that this consciousness embodies compassion and love, or the possibility of the kind of intimate contact which is the very essence of the mystical traditions. There is work to be done if this rather spartan image of God is to be reconciled even with his own stress on seeing meaning in nature.
The Copernican revolution heralded a profound change in the way the world and the universe were seen. What Kastrup seeks to achieve is if anything more radical. But finely argued as this book is, how likely is it that the case for consciousness will ultimately be widely and generally accepted?
Well, look at it this way. We and the world must be made of something. If the choice is quarks or consciousness, which should be chosen? Nobody has ever seen a quark but everyone has intimate experience of consciousness.
And everybody dreams. We dream and in our dreams, landscapes appear filled with buildings, rooms, trees, people… We walk in our dreams, touch a lover, smell a rose perhaps, and the ground does not give way under our feet. When we awake we realise, that was a dream – those were not solid buildings, not real people; the ‘space’ they filled was not space but simply an illusion which occupied no space at all inside our head. True, but while we slept we did not question the dream world’s validity: everything we experienced seemed real at the time. So we know that consciousness can appear in phenomenal form. 
In terms of the overall impact of the book: there is much to be said for a mission that sets out to rescue us from the emptiness and confusion of post-modernism – a mission which if successful could also contribute to the tasks of solving global problems. Kastrup puts it well at the end: ‘Contemporary culture is forgetting to read the letter for the sake of describing the envelope’ (p.237). We should be grateful to him for the way he shows that the world should be regarded as an envelope; it is up to us, not him, to read the letter.
The Idea of the World: A multi-disciplinary argument for the mental nature of reality (2019) was published by Iff Books in 2019.
You can learn more about Bernardo Kastrup on his website www.bernardokastrup.com. Here you can read his writings and essays as well as links to interviews with him. The extraordinary story of how he moved from computer engineering to the ideas described here are recounted in his earlier book, More the Allegory (Iff Books, 2016). His latest book is Decoding Schopenhauer’s Metaphysics: The key to understanding how it solves the hard problem of consciousness and the paradoxes of quantum mechanics (Iff Books, 2020).
Dr Richard Gaulthas worked at universities in Scotland, Ireland, Holland and Germany, where he has taught and researched a variety of subjects, including the history and philosophy of science and technology