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Bernardo Kastrup Argues for a Universal Mind as a Reasonable Idea

The challenge, he says, is not why there is consciousness but why there are so many separate instances of consciousnesses

In a recent podcast, Michael Egnor continued his discussion with philosopher and computer programmer Bernardo Kastrup; This week, the topic was panpsychism and cosmopsychism. (Last week, the topic was why consciousness couldn’t just evolve from the mud.)

A partial transcript follows: (The complete transcript is here. The Show Notes and Resources are below.)

Dr. Kastrup made clear that he is not a panpsychism but rather a cosmopsychist. He explains the difference, defining panpsychism as follows:

Bernardo Kastrup (pictured): Panpsychism, well, to be more accurately called constitutive panpsychism, it’s the notion that at least some of the elementary particles that constitutes the universe, at least some of them, are fundamentally conscious. In other words, they have experiential states, fundamental experiential states, next to having fundamental physical properties, like mass, charge, spin, momentum, spacetime position, and so on. So, next to all of those physical properties, there is a fundamental experiential property to at least some of the elementary building blocks of the physical universe.

Note: Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosoph yintroduces panpsychism thus: “Panpsychism is the view that mentality is fundamental and ubiquitous in the natural world. The view has a long and venerable history in philosophical traditions of both East and West, and has recently enjoyed a revival in analytic philosophy. For its proponents panpsychism offers an attractive middle way between physicalism on the one hand and dualism on the other.”

Kastrup agrees with theoretical physicist Sabine Hossenfelder in her criticism of panpsychism:

Bernardo Kastrup: There is one I will be shot at for agreeing with, Sabine Hossenfelder, a very no-nonsense physicist.

Michael Egnor: Yes.

Bernardo Kastrup: I confess that I actually like her. Please don’t shoot me.

Michael Egnor (pictured): No, I do too. She’s a very interesting person, and writes some interesting stuff. Yeah.

Note: From “Theoretical physicist slams panpsychism: “Now, if you want a particle to be conscious, your minimum expectation should be that the particle can change. It’s hard to have an inner life with only one thought.” (MMN, February 28, 2020)

Bernardo Kastrup: And her argument is, you see, for there to be even endogenous experiential states, like emotions and thoughts, there would have to be some form of variability. A guitar string produces a note when it’s varying, when it’s moving up and down. That’s the excitation. It’s a vibration. There is a dynamism. It’s not purely static.

It’s very difficult to conceive of an experiential state that is completely static, like seeing only one color without any reference for you to be able to say that that’s white instead of black. If you only see white, then there is no white. And her point is that the inner state of the elementary subatomic particles doesn’t change. It’s a fixed inner state. And if what we can measure physically is the appearance, the extrinsic appearance, or the image of the inner experiential state, then insofar as the image correlates with the inner state, a static image correlates with a static inner state, but that would be incoherent.

That’s her point of view, that you cannot have a static experiential state and therefore, subatomic particles, elementary subatomic particles, cannot have experiential states.

Note: Hossenfelder (pictured) has also dismissed the idea of free will and on that subject, Egnor took issue with her view: “She misses the irony that she insists that people ‘change their minds’ by accepting her assertion that they… can’t change their minds.” – Can physics prove there is no free will? (MMN, May 6, 2019)

Kastrup goes on to say that elementary particles don’t really exist in the sense that we often suppose:

Bernardo Kastrup: I think that’s a valid argument. I would have another one. I would say, elementary subatomic particles don’t exist. They are an epistemic tool, and physicists know this. An elementary subatomic particle is a particular pattern of excitation of a quantum field. That quantum field, that thing, although it’s entirely abstract, it exists. And to use an analogy to explain this, if you see a ripple moving on the surface of an otherwise very calm lake, you can point to the ripple and say, “It’s here. Now it’s here. And now it’s there.” Presumably, you can measure it. You can say it’s this high, it’s this long, it’s this large, it’s moving with that speed. You can characterize that ripple with all kinds of physical constants, or not constants, but physical quantities that characterize the ripple as a physical entity. Yet, there is nothing to the ripple but the water of the lake. The ripple is just a pattern of excitation of the water. The water isn’t even moving from left to right, it’s moving only up and down. But the ripple moves from left to right.

So, a subatomic particle is just like the ripple. It is a ripple in the quantum field and as such, it doesn’t really exist. It’s just a way of talking about the pattern of excitation of the quantum field. But if the panpsychists bite this bullet, then you would have to concede that the consciousness that they want to put in at that level of nature, as a fundamental aspect of nature, would be spatially unbound, because the quantum field is spatially unbound. You cannot say that the ripple is conscious because the ripple doesn’t exist. There is only the quantum field. So, you have to say the quantum field is conscious.

But now, you end up with universal consciousness because the quantum field, this is spatially unbound. It exists everywhere at the same time. And that makes it impossible for panpsychists to explain why you and I seem to have separate conscious in their lives. I can’t read your thoughts. Presumably, you can’t read mine. I do not know what’s happening in the galaxy of Andromeda. So, I think that’s a very strong argument against panpsychism.

But the problem that separate consciousnesses creates for panpsychism (even elementary particles are conscious) does not, he says, exist in the same way for cosmopsychism (there is one universal consciousness), the view he holds:

So, to avoid this combination problem, some philosophers have moved to the exact opposite end of the scale. They say, “Well, you know what? There is only one universal consciousness.” And by the way, that’s much more consistent with physics as we know. It’s much more consistent with quantum field theory, quantum electrodynamics and… Well, quantum field theory is the broader theory. But then, that’s called cosmopsychism. There is only one universal consciousness.

Note: Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy offers: “Constitutive cosmopsychism—The view that all facts are grounded in/realized by/constituted of consciousness-involving facts at the cosmic-level… The minimal commitment of cosmopsychism is that the universe is conscious; in principle this is compatible with holding that the universe is a derivative entity, grounded in facts about is parts.”

Bernardo Kastrup: And the challenge that you have to face then, as a cosmopsychist, is to say, how does this one mind seemingly break up or decomposes into a number of individual subjectivities? Like you, me, my cats, the bacteria swimming on the lake. How does the one ground the many? This is called then the decomposition problem.

In Kastrup’s view, we all have separate consciousnesses because we are dissociated from the universal consciousness, in a way that a person with multiple personality disorder might have separate consciousnesses all in one mind:

Bernardo Kastrup: My claim is, at least on empirical grounds, disassociation provides us a very good analogy, a very good metaphor for what might be happening at a universal level. Leading this one universal consciousness that we hypothesize to becoming many, to becoming you, me, and my girlfriend downstairs, and my cats, and so on.

Note: In mid-2018, Scientific American published an essay by Kastrup and two others advocating cosmopsychism: “Could Multiple Personality Disorder Explain Life, the Universe and Everything?” One reason that science media are respectful of cosmopsychism may be growing awareness of the problems with strict materialism, naturalism, or physicalism: As Michael Egnor has noted, “How can you have a proposition that the mind doesn’t exist? That means propositions don’t exist and that means that you don’t have a proposition.”


Last episode:

Why consciousness couldn’t just evolve from the mud. Kastrup, a panpsychist, is sympathetic to the basic intuitions behind the idea that there is design in nature (intelligent design theory). Philosopher and computer scientist Bernardo Kastrup discusses the problems with such claims with neurosurgeon Michael Egnor.

See also: Consciousness cannot have evolved. How many joules of consciousness would make you a human instead of a chimpanzee? How many more joules of consciousness would make you a genius?

and

Why is science growing comfortable with panpsychism (“everything is conscious”)? At one time, the idea that “everything is conscious” was the stuff of jokes. Not any more, it seems.

Show Notes

  • 00:35 | Introducing Dr. Bernardo Kastrup
  • 01:29 | Panpsychism and cosmopsychism
  • 02:42 | Using your senses to convey information to the mind
  • 04:24 | Communicating feelings
  • 05:33 | Differentiating complex internal states from simple ones
  • 06:44 | A definition of consciousness
  • 07:40 | Refuting panpsychism
  • 12:06 | How is cosmopsychism different from panpsychism?
  • 14:40 | The solution to the decomposition problem

Additional Resources


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Bernardo Kastrup Argues for a Universal Mind as a Reasonable Idea