About a year ago, I wrote an article called The Essence of Life: Two Potential Models. In that article, I explained that all the matter around us, which includes the bodies and brains of living beings, are made up of protons, neutrons, and electrons. These fundamental particles “swap out” all the time, and yet we still are who we are; our consciousness doesn’t change as the particles change. From this, it was posited that consciousness (or our “souls”) doesn’t reside in our matter, but from the arrangement of the matter, or the exact way that memories and experiences are chemically stored in the brain.
After discussing that point, I presented two models for consciousness. The first model was that the essence of life (consciousness) separates into distinct souls that are unchanging and define who we are. When a new person is born, a new soul is forged from the essence which enters that particular body and is separate from other souls, which is mostly in line with my Christian upbringing. The second model was that of the same life essence bringing all living things to life, and that separation of consciousness is an illusion. It was hypothesized that when matter takes on a certain arrangement (e.g. that of a human body), consciousness “can enter it” and create a living being that feels temporarily separate, but is ultimately the same consciousness that resides in every living being. Obviously, it is likely impossible to prove either one of these models correct, but it is interesting to think about.
Recently, my lovely and sometimes-wacky mother gave me a book called “Why Materialism is Baloney“, by Dr. Bernardo Kastrup. Truth be told, at first I thought its subject matter would dissect materialism in the form of material possessions (cars and clothes and junk), but it actually is a book written by an accomplished computer engineer (Ph.D.) that challenges the prevailing metaphysical model that modern science has fully embraced: materialism. Metaphysics, in this sense, is the branch of philosophy that deals with the ultimate source of all things in first principles and the nature of being; and materialism, I now realize, is all I had ever known until reading this book.
What is Materialism?
In his book, Dr. Kastrup explains that all scientists are trained to believe that materialism is the only metaphysical model available to real science, but that science has never actually proven it’s validity. Specifically, materialism is a subset of the metaphysical model known as realism. Realism contends that matter exists outside and independently of consciousness, which intuitively feels correct. Rocks and dirt do not appear to have consciousness, and you would definitely think that rocks and dirt would exist independently of consciousness since they were here before humans. Materialism builds upon realism, and as a metaphysical model can be defined as follows:
- There are particles (materials) that are outside of, and independent of consciousness (this is realism)
- These materials are the fundamental substance of nature
- Consciousness (or mind) is a result of physical processes within these materials, and arise due to specific arrangements governed by the laws of physics
- Essentially – consciousness arises from the fundamental materials that make up the universe, so consciousness is not fundamental in and of itself. Only materials are.
According to materialism, consciousness is separate from matter, and only happens when materials come together in a specific way (like in a human brain), and when the arrangement is broken, the consciousness that was there is gone. Matter being independent seems obvious: when two people look at an object like a chair, not only can they agree that neither person is the other person (separation of consciousness, independent thought), but also that the third non-living object is separate from their consciousness as but common to both of their observations. To me, that’s all I’ve ever known. How could inanimate objects be part of consciousness? They’d have to be separate, or we wouldn’t be independent beings, and being an independent being is our subjective point of view.
There is an alternative metaphysics, however, that contends that everything in the universe is consciousness and nothing exists outside of consciousness. This metaphysics is called idealism.
Idealism: Consciousness is Fundamental
This concept is new to me, but after considering it for a few months, I have come to realize that it is in many ways more intuitive than the standard materialism metaphysics that I took for granted. The basic concept is the reverse of materialism. Under idealism, the fundamental nature of the universe is consciousness and consciousness only. It presents the notion that everything is consciousness, and that all the materials and laws of nature are a result of consciousness expressing itself. In summary, idealism contends that:
- The medium of the universe is consciousness itself
- Everything is consciousness – nothing is independent of it
- Your body and brain are consciousness itself, as are all objects
- The only thing that truly exists is conscious perception; there is nothing else
- The laws of nature are the product of consciousness, not the other way around
As an abstraction, it is difficult to reconcile that there exists nothing outside of consciousness. So much of our thoughts and experiences feel personal and separate from the rest of the universe that materialism’s separation seems obvious. As Kastrup explains in his book, however, there is a lot of empirical scientific evidence pointing in the direction of idealism. As an example, the only reality we ever truly experience are in consciousness. That is, if we don’t actually consciously perceive reality, then it’s not happening. When you kick a rock, all that you really know is that consciousness in the form of you experienced kicking a rock, not that the rock is actually there and separate from consciousness. The experience, and every experience, is in consciousness itself, so it’s actually harder to prove that it is separate as opposed to the same phenomenon. My initial discomfort with this idea has waned as I’ve realized that everything I’ve ever known has been in consciousness, and nothing I’ve ever experienced is outside of “my” consciousness (more on “my” consciousness below). The only thing I, or any of us, can ever really know to exist is consciousness.
Although Kastrup doesn’t get into this, I have often pondered as to who designed the laws of nature to be so perfect, and my current thinking is in line with Kastrup’s portrayal of idealism. By this I mean modern physicists contend that if the laws of nature (things like gravity, electromagnetism, nuclear forces) were off by minuscule amounts, then stars and molecules as we know them could not exist (although this might vary somewhat throughout space). So – if the universe was not tuned physically as perfectly as it is now, the stellar dynamics and biochemistry that dictate the science of life as we know it would not exist. So – WHO chose this? Perhaps it was consciousness itself, so that it could experience itself through the eventual brains of self-aware beings. A strange thought, but hey, I’ve heard stranger.
Idealism also points to the second model I suggested for the essence of life in my article from last year (referenced in the introduction). That second model was that there is one consciousness that inhabits all conscious beings, and that separation of “souls” (or whatever) is a temporary illusion. Idealism comes close to supporting this notion as it contends that everything is consciousness, so it’s not that consciousness “can enter” a new brain, but that the brain is already consciousness itself. Under materialism, a “new” consciousness arises again for every new human being that is born, whereas under idealism, everything is consciousness already and consciousness becomes aware of itself when a new brain develops.
An Analogy for Idealism: Dreams
If you’re struggling to follow at this point (I know I was…), then I’d like to offer my version of an analogy that Kastrup describes in his book. Think of a dream you’ve had before. A dream that felt vivid and real to you. Within that dream, you likely had a body of sorts. Most likely, that body was a version of yours (I usually have superpowers, but sometimes it’s just plain old me). That dream also had other characters and within the dream, you probably had no control over those other characters; they felt separate. Objects and animals could also have been a part of the dream and although you could interact with them, they weren’t “you” were they? Your dream had laws of nature that could be predicted, but ultimately it was unknown where they came from. An example of this is that in some dreams that I have, I have the ability to fly or to walk on air. I know I can do these things, but I don’t know why I can. It seems like there are things that are unknowable, that we have no control over, and that are separate from us.
But here’s the thing: that all took place in your brain. Your body, the objects, the other people, the animals were all you. Nothing was separate from you, it just felt that way within the dream. This is because everything and everyone, yourself included, was the dream.
This is just an analogy to help with the comprehension of idealism. From this analogy, under idealism, you can think of the universe as a big shared dream of consciousness. We’re all characters within that dream, and all the particles and laws of nature are particular to the dream as well. We can predict the results of the dream and have a degree of control by learning the laws of nature and how they apply to materials, but ultimately, it’s all the same thing: consciousness. That’s all there is.
So, which is correct?
I don’t know, and I’ll probably never know. The motivation for this article was not to definitively prove one over the other, but to spread the idea that the prevalent materialism is not the only metaphysics that holds any water. Learning about idealism was an eye-opening experience for me, and has added another layer to my thinking that I believe is beneficial both mentally and spiritually.
Materialism could be correct, but so could idealism, or some other metaphysics. Materialist objections to idealism include the fact that perception of consciousness is altered by certain materials (e.g. drugs), that disembodied consciousness has yet to be identified by science, and many physical processes that take place in the brain that lead to certain behaviours have been studied in detail and explained without consciousness in the picture. There is weight to some of these arguments (along with their idealist counter-arguments), but again, ultimately the true metaphysics might be unknowable. This is an interesting discussion that might never end. The value that is offered from these thought processes, to me, lies in stepping back from every day reality and trying to see the forest for the trees. This can interrupt purely instinctual behaviours for a while to provide space to think about what it is we are, even if we can’t ever actually know. Self-reflection seems to be unique to complex living beings (humans, and maybe more), so exploring these ideas can be part of a rich human experience, if it is of interest to you.
If you want more detail, more support for idealism, deconstruction of materialist arguments, and several more analogies, then I highly recommend reading Why Materialism is Baloney. My only criticisms are that Kastrup’s writing style feels a little too casual while at the same time being overly intellectual, but overall it’s a great piece of work. There were many times I had to put the book down and just think for a while, which I found richly satisfying.
Readers: what do you think? Is materialism baloney? Is consciousness the fundamental fabric of the universe, or is it just a result of the materials that are native to it? I’d love to hear your thoughts. Please comment if you have a question or something to add.