Debunking idealism old and new
This is a chapter from my in-progress book Commerce of Mind: Essays and Interviews in Science, Philosophy and Spirituality.
“It’s all in your mind, man!” So says the now cliché hippy mantra. This counterintuitive statement is, of course, partly true: all of our subjective experiences are indeed in our minds. But the main point of the mantra, and the point of a growing number of modern thinkers, is that “no, not just your experiences are in your mind, man, it’s ALL in your mind. The physical world is created by your mind.”
Wow!, we’re supposed to respond. We create all of reality ourselves, right here in our heads?
Let’s look at this modern take on the philosophical school of thought known as idealism — reality consists fundamentally of ideas, not of physical stuff — and see if we can’t debunk it once and for all.
I’ll be discussing a number of recent works in the course of this debunking, including Robert Lanza’s and Bob Berman’s 2009 book Biocentrism: How Life and Consciousness are Keys to Understanding the True Nature of the Universe; Deepak Chopra’s similar ideas expressed in many books, articles and presentations; various statements of similar ideas in Buddhist teachings; and psychologist Donald Hoffman’s recent work on conscious agent theory and its associated philosophical implications.
Yes, our subjective feelings and impressions are indeed all in our minds
First, I want to establish where I agree with these thinkers: I agree that the world we know, each of us in our heads here and now, is entirely created in our minds, presumably by our brains and the various senses that feed into our brains. So in that sense, yes, our human reality is for each of us all in our minds. But recognizing the ability of our minds and brains to create an entire world for each of us, based on an external objective reality, is a very different statement than saying that there is no external objective reality.
The modern scientific view is that there is a world out there that forms the basis for the creation of subjective individual worlds by beings with minds. This position is known as scientific realism and I find it a pretty compelling view. The obvious — and in my view overwhelmingly convincing — point in favor of scientific realism is the fact that you and I and just about everyone you could ask about any particular piece of reality — let’s pick the scene while sitting on my back lanai over my green yard on the Big Island of Hawaii — would agree on the main details as to what exists in that view. Here’s a picture:
We’d agree as we sat there and gazed out that there are various trees and grass and assorted Hawaiian plants. We’d agree that there’s a sky with some clouds in it and, if we listened closely, we’d agree that there’s some noise from my neighbors and a nice breeze coming by. We’d agree that there are some birds singing, etc. Any human with functioning senses and a normally functioning mind would agree with these basic facts about this scene from the world in front of us if we were sitting on my back lanai.
Why do we agree on so many of the details of the external world?
The scientific realist uses this kind of agreement — what is known as “intersubjective” agreement — to reasonably infer that there is in fact a real world out there, independent of any particular human consciousness, that we know through our senses. Our minds create our subjective impressions for each of us: the colors, the sounds, every detail of what we actually witness in our minds. We know this with good confidence from countless studies on how the brain produces the features of our world. But we reasonably infer that there is something out there, what we call an external objective world, that is the basis for our internal representations in our minds.
So the world we know is — we reasonably infer — a representation of an independently existing reality. By independently existing, we mean that it exists independently of you or I. How else would we agree on so much about what’s out there if there wasn’t some objective (i.e. independent of our individual minds) basis for the worlds in our minds?
Idealism can’t answer this basic question very well at all. Classic idealism, formulated by Bishop Berkeley in a number of works in the 18th Century, answered the question by suggesting that the external world is in fact the mind of God. And since we all exist in the mind of God, we agree on these features of the world around us. The world around us is the mind of God.
Modern idealists don’t generally put it this way because positing God and its Mind and our existence within this Mind doesn’t seem very scientific given all the other things we know about the universe. Rather, modern idealists who don’t rely on this argument based on God simply have no explanation of where our sensory perceptions come from and why most of us agree on so much about the external world.
Biocentrism is a new form of idealism, with equally poor reasoning
For example, Lanza and Berman in their 2009 book Biocentrism, don’t talk about God in arguing for their theory. Rather, they simply posit, based on their understanding of modern physics and biology, that human minds create space and time. So each human creates reality out of whole cloth, not the other way around. How does this work exactly? And why do we each agree on so much of the details of the external world that each of us allegedly creates out of whole cloth in our minds? Well, we’re never really told in a way that makes any sense.
It’s rare that a book inspires me to mark up its pages with numerous critiques and exclamation points. But this one did. In short, it’s a very badly reasoned rehash of classic philosophical idealism, with a veneer of modern science to justify this manifestly irrational worldview. Life creates the universe, the authors argue, and yet nowhere in this book is there a good answer to the question I’ve already posed: why do each of us agree on so much about the external world if it’s all created by our own minds?
Nor is there any discussion of evolution or evolutionary theory.
How did life evolve? How did simple forms evolve into more complex forms? These questions aren’t asked or answered in the book even though they’re absolutely essential to modern biology and any philosophy based on the science of biology and on life itself. “Evolution” or “evolutionary theory” or “natural selection” or “sexual selection” don’t appear in the book.
It is manifestly strange for a book that focuses on life and biology as the foundation for a philosophical worldview to not even mention the heart of biological theory: evolutionary theory. And evolution is all about change over time. If the authors had thought a little about evolution and evolutionary theory they would have realized that change and the passage of time are at the heart of a modern scientific worldview and that evolutionary theory and its focus on the passage of time represent a major challenge to the current fashion in physics (which their book adopts) to view time as somehow illusory.
For the authors, it is as though the world is simply a given in each moment, with no history. This is about as good an explanation for ourselves and our universe as stating (as Creationists do): “God created everything from nothing.” The authors are not Creationists but their explanations are just as inadequate because they ignore the biggest questions about how things came to be as they are now — how things evolved. We simply cannot understand how things are unless we also examine how things came to be. And this the authors don’t do at all.
The mind creates time, they argue. What? One of the undeniable aspects of human consciousness is the passage of time — as certain as Descartes’ famous “I think, therefore I am.” The contents of our consciousness are constantly changing, no one can deny. This process of change is what we generally define as the passage of time: change equals time.
But to suggest that our minds create time is again to ignore the massive question: how did our minds evolve? Our minds are already tremendously complex. We can observe dogs, cats and other animals and see quite clearly numerous “behavioral correlates of consciousness” that give us high confidence that other creatures enjoy their own types of consciousness. Where this scale of consciousness ends, we can’t know. Personally, I believe it goes all the way down to the basic constituents of matter, and is just extremely rudimentary at this level. But you don’t need to be a panpsychist as I am, to recognize that many many other creatures enjoy consciousness and that consciousness has evolved from simpler types to more complex types like human consciousness.
So how has this evolutionary process taken place? The notion that human minds create time and space — the central arguments in Biocentrism — is manifestly absurd in the context of evolution, whether we believe in the Darwinian version of evolutionary theory or not (personally, I have some problems with mainstream evolutionary theory but I fully accept the fact of evolutionary change regardless of what theory we prefer to explain that change).
It is clear that human minds have evolved from less complex minds over a vast period of time. Our DNA is 98% the same as chimp DNA and the percentage of similarity decreases smoothly the further we move away from primates to other mammals to other vertebrates, etc. Beyond the quantified genetic similarities, we can observe behavioral similarities of numerous kinds in chimps, other primates, other mammals and many other animals that strongly suggest they are both closely related to humans and that they have a rich emotional life, as humans do. Surely that emotional life is different than our own emotional lives and probably much less complex in most cases — we do, after all, have the most complex brains in the animal kingdom, with the most well-developed cortex and prefrontal lobes.
In sum, the biological similarities between humans and the rest of the animal kingdom are overwhelming and undeniable. We have very clearly evolved from the same cloth as other animals, over vast eons of time. We know this from countless geological and paleontological records.
How do human minds create time? The short answer is: they don’t. At least not in the fundamental physical sense. Human minds evolved out of a world that didn’t previously include human minds, but which existed nonetheless in largely the same way as it exists now. Humans and our minds evolved steadily over the course of billions of years through natural processes that existed long before humans arrived on the scene, a vast and growing body of evidence demonstrates. To suggest otherwise is to put one’s head in the sand like an ostrich. It’s irrational and wrongheaded.
Lanza and Berman argue that quantum mechanics supports their notion that life and consciousness create reality. This is a complex topic but the short response is that there are numerous different interpretations of quantum mechanics and none has majority support among physicists any more. While quantum mechanics’ mathematical predictions, which are entirely statistical, are impressively accurate, the interpretation of these mathematics in terms of the ontology of the world, is very much up for debate even though we are almost a hundred years past the creation of quantum mechanics.
Moreover, any interpretation of quantum mechanics that argues that humans create concrete reality and time itself brings us back to the obvious critique above: how did complex human minds evolve if those same minds create time itself? Again, the answer is that they don’t. The world existed long before humans were around.
The authors literally argue at one point in the book that we shouldn’t rely on logic in considering biocentrism (page 140): “Throughout these discussions of biocentrism, several points are invariably reached in which the thinking mind reaches a blank wall beyond which lie contradictions or — worse — nothingness. Our point here is that this should never be taken as evidence that biocentrism is false, any more than the Big Bang needs to be discredited solely because it results in the inconceivable notion of a beginning to time.”
So the authors ask us to ignore inconceivability and illogic in evaluating their arguments in a book that claims to represent cutting edge science and philosophy. The authors will understand, I’d hope, if the discerning reader will put down the book at this point and move on.
Vedanta and Buddhist idealism
Turning now to Deepak Chopra’s work, which he describes as a philosophy of non-duality, rather than idealism, but which I’ll describe as Vedanta idealism because of its strong similarities to western idealism, we run quickly into the same glaring problem: if all apparently external things exist in “consciousness,” as Chopra argues, why do we humans agree on so much about the world around us?
Chopra wrote in a 2016 essay he coauthored with physicist Menas Kafatos:
The mental activity of using our perceptions to define what is real and then interpreting these perceptions creates reality insofar as human beings know it. We tell ourselves a story built from our experiences, and even when we point to laws of nature and mathematical formulas to bolster our story, they too are experiences.
Chopra and Kafatos include the important caveat “insofar as human beings know it” in this statement. And yet it’s clear from Chopra’s numerous statements on this topic, and our private correspondence, that he believes that there is no external objective reality, even separate from reality “as human beings know it.” All is in consciousness, which seems to be Chopra’s translation of the Vedanta term Brahman, which can also be translated as the ground of being or Source.
One difficulty with Chopra’s ideas, for those trained in western science and philosophy, seems to stem from his terminology. It doesn’t make sense to me to translate Brahman as consciousness, because Brahman is not a conscious being. Rather, Brahman is, in the Vedanta traditions that I’m familiar with (such as Shankara’s advaita Vedanta) an impersonal and unconscious creative principle. Brahman is beyond any notions of conscious or non-conscious. Nirguna Brahman is the completely unconditioned notion of Brahman. Nirguna Brahman is not conscious.
More generally, using the term consciousness to refer to fundamental reality is highly confusing because we usually use “consciousness” to refer to a state of being awake and aware, a perspective that is a center of perception. Chopra is using the term in a very different way that directly contradicts the normal use of the term.
Perhaps a more serious issue is simply explaining why, if our reality is all created in our own minds, we all agree on so much of our external reality. I’ve attended conferences where Chopra has presented his ideas about idealism/non-duality. My colleague, Jonathan Schooler, asked him at the 2017 Science of Consciousness conference in San Diego, which I attended, the very basic question that I’ve posed here: “Why do we have so much intersubjective agreement if we each create our own reality?” Dave Chalmers had asked Chopra the same question in a previous conference I also attended. Chopra didn’t answer the question either time in any substantive way. I respect Chopra and like many of his books, but when you can’t respond to very basic questions about your core assertions you have a big problem with your theory.
In short, Chopra’s version of idealism simply ignores the obvious explanation for why we agree on so much about the external world: the external world actually exists and we evolved from it in a progression from simpler beings to more complex beings, not the other way around.
[After I wrote this chapter, I engaged in a lengthy email correspondence with Chopra and his colleague Anoop Kumar on these topics and this discussion is the basis for my Chapter __ where I delve further into these issues].
Buddhist idealism makes essentially the same arguments that Vedanta idealists make. This is not surprising because Buddhism sprang from the Vedanta tradition in 5th Century BCE India and shares much of the same worldview even though some core Buddhist tenets diverge strongly from Vedanta— the doctrines of no-self and of dependent origination, for example.
I’m quite sympathetic to various aspects of Vedanta and Buddhism, and have written favorably about these spiritual traditions elsewhere, including in my last book, Mind, World, God. So I’m not here indicting these traditions as a whole. Not at all. Rather, I’m addressing a rather glaring problem in the philosophical teachings of these traditions. We can and should always be looking to improve the quality of philosophical and spiritual traditions that otherwise have value, so my hope is that these thinkers may consider these critiques and either address them better — or change their philosophical approach.
Buddhist idealism, while not commonly described as such, takes much the same position as Vedanta idealism or biocentrism: consciousness creates reality, rather than a non-conscious reality giving rise to consciousness. While at some level, this may be true, in terms of what we can know about reality, we need to be careful in how we define consciousness, as suggested also in the previous section.
In Vedanta and Buddhist traditions, consciousness often refers to an impersonal ground of reality rather than any individual consciousness. “Pure consciousness” can be said to create our reality, in the same way that Berkeley suggested that God created reality, with human minds dwelling inside the Mind of God, but this should not be taken to mean that each of us creates reality whole cloth in our own minds or that there is no reality separate from our own minds.
I would also suggest that an impersonal ground of reality, Brahman, rigpa, akasha, ether, apeiron, what have you, should not be called consciousness or presumed to have any consciousness of its own. Presuming the existence of consciousness at the base of reality itself, independent of matter and energy, presumes a fundamental complexity that is unparsimonious and that we needn’t accept.
My view is that the ground or ocean of being, or Source, is beyond the subject/object dichotomy; it is pure being. It is only when matter and energy bubble up from this ocean of being that consciousness also bubbles up, tied necessarily to matter and energy, and vice versa.
Turning last to Donald Hofmann’s work on conscious agents and evolutionary success, let’s see if his arguments carry any more water with respect to idealism than do the previous arguments.
Hofmann argues in a 2014 paper that “consciousness, rather than space-time and physical objects, is fundamental. I propose a formal model of consciousness based on a mathematical structure called conscious agents. I then propose how time and space emerge from the interactions of conscious agents.”
And he states in a 2016 interview for Quanta magazine:
Snakes and trains, like the particles of physics, have no objective, observer-independent features. The snake I see is a description created by my sensory system to inform me of the fitness consequences of my actions. Evolution shapes acceptable solutions, not optimal ones. A snake is an acceptable solution to the problem of telling me how to act in a situation. My snakes and trains are my mental representations; your snakes and trains are your mental representations.
Again, the logical flaw here is immediately apparent: how did not only snakes and trains evolve, but also the human capacity to identify snakes and trains, if there are no observer-independent features of these phenomena? It’s transparently poor reasoning to suggest that there is no observer-independent reality given these obvious questions about our universe and our place in it.
How did conscious agents arise if conscious agents create time, when evolution — change over time — necessarily presupposes the passage of time? These very basic questions stop this theory before it gets out of the gate.
Rather than arguing that there is no observer-independent reality, we should reacquaint ourselves with Kant’s arguments from The Critique of Pure Reason, which center on the realization that while we can never know “the thing in itself” — the true nature of reality and its components — we can indeed reasonably infer that there is in fact a thing in itself that forms the basis for our perceptions and representations of it, even if we can’t know the full details about the particular thing in itself at issue.
Where do our perceptions and representations come from if not from some independently existing external reality? And why do we (you and I and anyone we care to bring into our conversation about any particular slice of the external world) agree on so much about the external world if there is no independently-existing external world?
Are there better alternatives?
It seems that this modern trend toward various forms of idealism is largely a manifestation of the reasonable desire to reject materialism, the rather austere worldview that predominates in modern science and philosophy. Materialism states, in very general terms, that there is nothing other than matter and energy in a container of spacetime. Mind somehow emerges from matter at a particular evolutionary point and at a particular point in the development of each human or animal that enjoys some kind of consciousness. But there is no widely accepted theory as to how mind emerges.
I too reject mainstream materialism as wholly inadequate for explaining our own minds or the evolution of consciousness more generally. But materialism and idealism aren’t the only options we have to consider. There is a third way called panpsychism, which I’ve hinted at above.
Panpsychism suggests that all matter/energy has some associated mental qualities, just as all matter/energy enjoys various physical qualities. Where there is matter there is mind and where there is mind there is matter. As matter complexifies so mind complexifies, and vice versa. They are two sides of the same coin.
A lot of the screwiness of classical and modern idealism begins to make sense if we re-frame it in panpsychist terms. Where materialism simply lops off the mental half of the universe, leaving us with an explanation of only half of the universe, panpsychism re-includes this mental aspect of the universe as part of the integral whole.
Idealism goes too far in the opposite direction from materialism by arguing that only mind and consciousness are fundamental. It lops off the physical world in an effort to satisfactorily explain mind and consciousness, making the same but opposite mistake that materialism does.
Panpsychism strikes a balance between acknowledging the reality of an objective external world and the reality of mind/consciousness. External and internal are two sides of the same coin in panpsychism; the yin and yang of reality.
This view combines scientific realism — the view that there is an objective world out there independent of human consciousness — with the view that all matter/energy has some associated mind, but this associated mind is extremely simple in the vast majority of circumstances. It is probably only when biological life comes into the picture that consciousness becomes complex enough to be very interesting. While atoms and molecules have their own very dim consciousness, it’s generally pretty negligible. We don’t need to start worrying about atomic or molecular rights.
I’ve described these views in more detail in a couple of books: Eco, Ego, Eros: Essays in Science, Philosophy and Spirituality and Mind, World, God: Science and Spirit in the 21st Century.
Interestingly, Hoffman’s ideas can be interpreted as either idealism (and thus strongly critiqued per my arguments above) or as a type of panpsychism, as is made clear by this statement from the same interview quoted above: “I call [my view] conscious realism: Objective reality is just conscious agents, just points of view. … It’s conscious agents all the way down.” This perspective makes sense: reality is nothing but a vast web of nested conscious agents, but this reality includes all of the constituents of reality from the smallest kinds of entities like electrons and atoms, up to the largest structures we observe in the universe.
But under this interpretation, it is still entirely unreasonable to suggest, as Hofmann does in fact suggest in his 2014 paper, that time itself is created by conscious agents. That is again putting the cart before the horse. Consciousness requires consciousness of something. In the case of human consciousness, it’s all the perceptions, memories, worries, etc. that occupy our conscious minds. Consciousness of is by necessity a process in time. Accordingly, any conscious agents must, to be conscious, exist in time. Therefore, conscious agents cannot be the origin of time.
In conclusion, I understand and agree with what seems to be the underlying motivation for idealism old and new: a strong feeling that materialist explanations of the universe fail to capture what it is to be human and fail to adequately explain all of reality. But as described above, idealism goes too far in the opposite direction and it cannot, as a result, explain the reality of the external world. Panpsychism finds the reasonable middle ground in explaining both our own minds and external reality, and the ongoing dance between the two at all levels of being.