Strategic Ontology In A Scientific World
Metaphysics is recovering in the West after a prolonged intellectual dormancy. Our baseline ontologies are again being questioned given advancements in quantum mechanics, theoretical physics and the re-emerging philosophical understanding of the importance of questions of ultimate concern. Though the 20th century was largely defined by a science that espoused a metaphysics of materialism, more recent developments (and lack thereof) point to the insufficiency of a substance-based, physicalist ontology to explain the nature of reality. The ‘hard’ problem of consciousness shows no signs of abating, while quantum phenomena such as the observer effect are continuing to demonstrate that mind and matter are fundamentally connected (Barad, 2007; Radin, 2006). Consequently, ontological conjectures hitherto dismissed are being given extra layers of texture, and validity, from scientific inquiry. This essay will evaluate the revival of some of these conjectures within a scientific world, and propose a suggested route forward for the re-integration of metaphysics into broader discourse. To set the context, I will begin by outlining the centuries-old decline of Western metaphysics and demonstrate why physicalism has failed in its attempts to fill our ontological void. I will then proceed to evaluate alternative ontologies to physicalism — panpsychism, relational ontologies and monistic idealism. I will argue that although a step in the right direction, panpsychism’s position as a quasi-materialist ontology cannot overcome its combination problem, while relational ontologies fail on the account of what I refer to as pragmatic metaphysics. To conclude, I argue that monistic idealism succeeds philosophically and pragmatically where other metaphysical systems fail: it is not only conceptually sound, but also scientifically congruent with regards to quantum revelations, parsimonious, intelligible, accessible and of net good for the world, factors I argue should be given more weight in metaphysical discussions as we attempt to strategically re-integrate questions of existence into the mainstream.
To commence, it is worth clarifying why I am focusing on ontology rather than other branches of metaphysics. Though metaphysical claims around morality and creativity are fascinating and fundamental, I see further distance between them and the latest developments in science than I do with the mind/matter problem and thus ontology. With the rise of artificial intelligence and the debate around its potential to become conscious, the persistent mind/matter interactionism in quantum experiments and the evident failures around materialism as our governing ontology (for metaphysical, physical, sociological and ecological reasons), we are living in a time whereby fundamental questions of ontology are being called forth once again. Since we are living in an age in which science is queen, and its evidence-based approach to reality here to stay, I believe any philosophical conjecture that has scope for scientific integration is a vital one. The exploration of metaphysical questions enhanced by the scientific method is perhaps the ‘path of least resistance’ in re-enchanting our understanding of the world, aligning with the scientific process so as to not to be rejected outright as pure speculation (an inevitable accusation in a world of empiricism). Although I am under no illusions of ontological ‘proof’ through the scientific method, nor its absolute necessity in ontological discussions, I think the potential of co-creative exploration between science and meta- physics is substantial. Science needs philosophy, and philosophy has an incredible opportunity to dance once again with the prevailing paradigm of the day. To facilitate this, I suggest we think about metaphysics strategically and pragmatically. Before deconstructing further, it is worth setting the scene for how metaphysics fell out of favor, and the context for its recent re-emergence.
The rebirth of metaphysics
“Human reason has this peculiar fate that in one species of its knowledge it is burdened by questions which, as prescribed by the very nature of reason itself, it is not able to ignore, but which, as transcending all its powers, it is also not able to answer.” Immanuel Kant, Critique of Pure Reason
Kant’s demonstration of the limits of metaphysical knowledge in the First Critique accelerated the momentum of Hume’s scepticism of metaphysical contemplation by ‘thinking animals’ and arguably set the scene for several centuries of negation of questions around ‘ultimate concern’. Extended by Nietzsche and reformulated by Heidegger, Wittgenstein and others, the implicit Western philosophical meta-assumption has been to assume a sense of limitation of what we can metaphysically know due to ineluctable subjective and linguistic constraints. As such, metaphysical discourse, and thus ontological debate, has, until relatively recently, been stifled and stymied in its evolution.
On the subjectivity front, Hume dismissed human faculties as incapable of answering metaphysical questions, those which “penetrate into subjects utterly inaccessible to the understanding” (Hume, 1779, p11). Building upon this, Kant demonstrated in the Transcendental Analytic that we cannot think beyond what we are capable of knowing. The use of abstract concepts and principles apart from experience cannot yield accurate knowledge of things in themselves, so that “ontology, which presumes to offer synthetic a priori cognitions of things in general… must give way to the more modest title of a transcendental analytic” (A247/B304). In essence, Kant believed metaphysics at- tempts to infer a priori synthetic knowledge from pure concepts without sensibility, a project destined to fail since “concepts without intuitions are empty” (ibid). Since Kant posits that the mind structures reality (rather than the converse), he insists we are incapable of knowing things in themselves as we cannot discern between what is in our own minds vis-a-vis what is a feature of the thing-in-itself. Thus, according to Kant, since knowledge is limited to appearances, we cannot effectively speculate as to the nature of being itself. With this understanding, metaphysical inquiry torpedoed into terminal decline (Sjostedt-H, 2015).
Subsequent to Kant’s subjective critique, logical positivists such as Ayer emphasised the verification principle, which holds that a statement is meaningful only if it is either empirically verifiable or else tautological, of which metaphysical inquiry is neither. Subsequently, Wittgenstein (1966) ap- peared to put the final nail in the coffin of metaphysics with his argument that the very linguistic nature of metaphysical statements are meaningless, and that their place in discourse is just part of a multitude of language games. Both linguistic and thought-based arguments can be thought of as variants of correlationism, a term coined by Meillassoux (2008, p49) to depict the “idea according to which we only ever have access to the correlation between thinking and being, and never to either term considered apart from the other.” For correlationists, it is assumed that one cannot know the reality of an object in and of itself since we cannot discern between its objective properties and the subjective properties that give access to the object.
The juxtaposition of correlationism and scientific empiricism made metaphysical inquiry a dying breed, and a metaphysics of physicalism caught on as the dominant paradigm (Chalmers, 2009). Science continued its rise to prominence and metaphysics within the context of science was seen as just another materialist problem that with sufficient time would be figured out. Since the 1970s, however, philosophy’s hostility to metaphysics has softened (Goff et al, 2017), and analytic philosophers are now beginning to embrace the inevitability of metaphysical exploration, not only due to the flaws in materialist metaphysics, but also perhaps as our culture acknowledges that if we cannot know metaphysics, then in principle all we are left with are competing claims, and thus no ultimacy around universal good or truth, surrendering Being to the scientific and naive realism that rules the world. Moreover, schools such as speculative realism (Meillassoux, 2008) are challenging the conceptual limitations of knowing articulated by Kant et al, the metaphysical linguistic critiques of the logical positivists and Wittgenstein are being questioned by authors such as Clarke (2007), while the failure of physicalism to articulate a sound account of quantum mechanics experiments, and thus consciousness, has helped to bring from the outskirts frameworks such as process philosophy (à la Whitehead and Bergson).
Let us first enquire as to why physicalist ontology does not hold up to philosophical, nor scientific, scrutiny. Inextricably connected to ontological debate is the debate of mind and matter, namely, how conscious experience relates to configurations of matter. Physicalist ontology (note I will use mater- ialism and physicalism interchangeably throughout this essay) declares reality to consist of ontological primitives that in themselves do not experience. For physicalists, experience is an emergent aftermath of system complexity, and so it is nothing to be a primitive (Kastrup, 2015). Physicalists propose that the physical is the ontological baseline of reality and that mental sentience is, although not yet understood, a function of physical dynamics. Historically, this perspective has been in contrast to Cartesian dualism, the position that consciousness exists independent of the physical uni- verse, a perspective that acknowledges the fundamentality of consciousness but rejects its ubiquity (Chalmers, 2009). Two core arguments against physicalist ontology follow, based predominantly on Peter Sjostedt-H’s own critiques.
The current physicalist paradigm holds that mental phenomena are emergent phenomena from neurological processes (Goff et al, 2017). Said differently, experiential properties are emergent properties of inorganic, non-conscious matter. For an author such as Strawson (2006, p18), this is an untenable position:
“It is built into the heart of the notion of emergence that emergence cannot be brute in the sense of there being absolutely no reason in the nature of things why the emerging thing is as it is (so that it is unintelligible even to God). For any feature Y of anything that is correctly considered to be emer- gent from X, there must be something about X and X alone in virtue of which Y emerges, and which is sufficient for Y.”
One must question where such emergent properties lie if not in the individual substrates of the mechanisms. Emergentism often draws parallels between consciousness and matter and structural examples such as whirlpools emerging from water, or water emerging from hydrogen and oxygen molecules. Yet the change in parts of the brain that give rise to emerging mental phenomena is not of the same category — these states are unobservable, unquantifiable, and lack any known trans-or- dinal laws that would bridge matter to mind (Sjostedt-H, 2015). Advocates of this physicalist school of thought imply that sentience can be inferred from biology in the same way that biology can be inferred from chemistry, despite no explanation as to how sentience can emerge from insentience. For Strawson, (2006a, p15), “intelligible emergence can be drawn from given a single set of conceptually homogeneous concepts. But it’s very hard to see how any set of conceptually homogeneous concepts could capture both the experiential (i.e., consciousness-involving) and the non-experiential (non-conscious-involving).”
This rebuke to emergentism, and thus materialism, can be developed as follows. Let us take the emergent property B as a derivative of a prior form A. For B to emerge from A is for B to arise from A given how A is. B must emerge or be given in A in a non-arbitrary way in order that it arise in the first place. Thus A has everything to do with B’s emergence. Some essence of B has to be already, in some configurative constituent, within A. “It is in essence an in-virtue-of relation [and thus] cannot be brute” (ibid).
Moreover, emergentism cannot, given its materialist foundation, accept that mental events can impact the world (such as through intention) since mental phenomena are not accepted forces of nature (Sjostedt-H, 2015). Emergentism developed to its logical conclusion thus refutes the possibility of mental causation in a physical world. Yet since emergentists also often reject epiphenomenalism (Chalmers, 2014), the notion that mind is the mere residual consequence of physical processes, they are stuck in the middle ground of neither accepting nor rejecting mental causation (Sjostedt-H, 2015). Thus to reject the upward and downward causation of emergentism, one could argue we ipso facto must accept that mind always co-existed with matter. This opens the conceptual door for the embracement of an alternative that transcends such problems, such as panpsychism, as consciousness is seen as a fundamental characteristic.
Further, the presence of emergence would be anti-evolutionary in that it entails an unaccounted for leap in the evolutionary process. There would have to have been a period of time in which an organism sprang into its sentience in a way that could not be explained in spatio-temporal, structural terms. “This would have been an emergence of kind rather than an emergence of degree” (Sjostedt- H, 2015), which according to the same physicalist paradigm that endorses it, contradicts the scien- tific argument that evolution is a continuous process that alters pre-existing constituents of substance without the ability to create completely novel forms of organism.
When contemplating the ontological structure of the universe, physicalists confront an oft-overlooked problem. Matter is regularly assumed to be ontologically uncontroversial — it is made of substance, and a collection of substances combine to create a larger substance (Goff et al, 2017). The success of physics is from the cultivation of this causal structure rather than speculation about the underlying nature of said structure .Yet over centuries, physics discoveries have resulted in further properties being added to matter. Since our understanding of the nature of matter has been evolving over time, it is impossible to take a firm position on a substance-based metaphysics. Moreover, said ‘understanding’ of matter is an abstraction taken to be real, in which it is known only as for what it does rather than what it is. Our materialist paradigm thus accounts for ontology through physical structure rather than content (Sjostedt-H, 2016). This is a perfectly valid position if attempting to account for the behaviour of certain particles, but does not go beyond abstract description of be- haviour into what a particle is, in and of itself. We have no thorough account of the intrinsic nature of matter, leaving the door open to debate as to what ontologically underpins it.
Now that I have briefly outlined the decline of metaphysics and some core arguments against physicalism, I will proceed to deconstruct alternate ontologies that hold more promise for metaphysical inquiry in a world of science, commencing with panpsychism.
A proposed alternative to physicalist ontology that avoids the aforementioned mental phenomena problems is panpsychism. One could conceptualise panpsychism as a Hegelian synthesis to the thesis of physicalism and its antithesis of dualism (Chalmers, 2014). Though its recent re-emergence has been attributed in part to Whitehead’s work, versions of panpsychism have been implicitly and explicitly stated in various philosophies for centuries. From Thales and Heraclitus in Ancient Greece and the animistic worldview of indigenous populations to the mind-matter articulators of the modern era including Spinoza, Schopenhauer, James and Whitehead, many a thinker has ar- ticulated the perspective that sentience itself is fundamental and universal.
A single definition of panpsychism is difficult to pinpoint, with several versions and iterations of panpsychism available. Nagel’s (1979) relatively broad definition perhaps best captures the largest spectrum of panpsychist categorisation: “panpsychism is the view that the basic physical constituents of the universe have mental properties, whether or not they are parts of living organisms.” A multitude of iterations flow from here, such as panexperientialism (conscious experience is ubiquitous) and pancognitivism (thought itself is ubiquitous). Panprotopsychism is the thesis that funda- mental entities have protophenomenal properties (Chalmers, 2014)), properties that are not themselves sentient but can collectively give rise to phenomenal properties. Other differentiations can be seen in Chalmer’s notions of constitutive versus nonconstitutive panpsychism. Moreover, there are both substance-based (Chalmers, 2009; Nagel, 1979) and process-relational versions of panpsychism (Bergson, 1903; Whitehead, 1929).
For the purposes of this essay, I will assume a constitutive, substance-based panpsychism while alluding to important ontological distinctions if and when appropriate to the subject matter at hand. In critiquing the emergentist argument, Nagel (1979) purports to show that panpsychism is the best explanation we have available given the following four premises:
- Material composition — all organisms are material systems, no constituents beside matter are required
- Non-reductionism — mental states are not physical properties of the organism and cannot be im- plied by physical properties alone
- Realism — nonetheless, these mental phenomena do exist
- Non-emergence — there are no fully emergent properties in a complex system, since all proper- ties hitherto unrealised derive their existence from the combination of other constituents combined
Nagel infers that since mental phenomena are not implied by physical properties but must derive from an organism’s constituents, said constituents must have nonphysical properties from which mental phenomena can arise. Since all matter can compose an organism, and said matter can be combined in various ways, all matter must contain these nonphysical properties, thus implying said properties as primary.
That said, there are also various perspectives that one might call emergent panpsychism, in which the sentience of advanced living organisms arises as a causal product of relationships between micro-level subjects. Rosenberg (2004) proposes a version of layered emergentism, whereby human sentience co-exists with micro-organism sentience. This is a less radical form than non-panpsychist emergentism, as the entities that emerge in co-participation are in essence the same micro-level subjects from which they emerge (Goff et al, 2017). In a similar vein, Seager (2016) suggest that when micro-level sentiences conjoin to form a human mind they do not construct but rather fuse into togetherness, eliminating their individuality in the process.
The ontological architecture of panpsychism makes for a convincing argument given the problematic prevailing paradigm of emergentism. Emergentism fails to provide an intelligible account of sentience from insentience and situates itself in a physicalist paradigm that has no sound laws for the interconnection between mental phenomena and physical constituents. Indeed, the emergentist argument positions itself as a physicalist account for which the empirical evidence it bases its endeavours is nonexistent. A simple Occam’s razor argument, one could argue, would invite the notion of panpsychism, which transcends the limitations of physicalist ontology in suggesting that consciousness itself is primary (either as protoconsciousness or some other version of sentience).
Yet panpsychism suffers from the combination problem, which challenges the validity of pervasive constituent-level sentience. In short, the question arises: how do the experiences of micro-level entities such as protons combine to give rise to human and animal consciousness? This was first articulated perhaps as far back as Cudworth in 1678 (Sjostedt-H, 2015) but gained prominence with James’ (1890) argument:
“Take a hundred of them [feelings], shuffle them and pack them as close together as you can (what- ever that may mean); still each remains the same feeling it always was, shut in its own skin, win- dowless, ignorant of what the other feelings are and mean. There would be a hundred-and-first feel- ing there, if, when a group or series of such feelings were set up, a consciousness belonging to the group as such should emerge. And this 101st feeling would be a totally new fact; the 100 original feelings might, by a curious physical law, be a signal for its creation, when they came together; but they would have no substantial identity with it, nor it with them, and one could never deduce the one from the others, or (in any intelligible sense) say that they evolved it.”
James posits that microexperiences do not summate to yield macroexperiences, that minds do not combine to into further minds. This poses a problem with the type of panpsychism I am referring to in this essay, which one might call micro-constitutive panpsychism. Though various authors have attempted to find ways to rebuke the combination critique (Coleman, 2012, Rosenberg, 2004), its core challenge remains (Chalmers, 2014). An important aspect of said challenge is the subjects-summing problem. If we are to take James’ quotation from above, we see that given 101 subjects, it does not appear that the combination of 100 would necessarily bring forth the 101st. It seems perfectly reasonable for micro-entities to exist in summation without a necessary flaring forth of a macro-entity. Applied to human consciousness, why would the summation of distinct conscious entities give rise to a single conscious mind? As Coleman (2014) argues, since each phenomenal micro-entity has a viewpoint that is its own, if micro-entities are to combine to form a universal experience, then said experience would have to combine each entity’s individual experience at the expense of all others as well as the same all other entities. This is a contradiction (assuming each entity has a different phenomenological experience). Other variants of the combination problem include the palette problem (Chalmers, 2014) (how can a limited number of micro qualities give rise to the complex array of macro phenomena of colours, sounds and smells?) and the grain problem (Lock- wood, 1993) (how do microexperiences result in homogenous macroexperiences such as the colour blue rather than a mass variation of distinct qualities?) It is clear that any refutal of the combination problem would have to take into account all of its iterations, less it be a rebuttal of a single strand.
Let us proceed to an alternative to the panpsychist perspective, and move beyond its substance-based ontology and into a dynamic, relational version. A substance-based view of reality has been critiqued as overly “individuated, formalized, mechanistic, and reductive to make proper sense of our existence” (Asch, 2004, p20), yet to discuss a relational ontology within the linguistic con- straints of philosophies we are habituated to employing is a difficult task. Relational ontology sug- gests that being is dynamic rather than static, and that this dynamism should be the focus of our on- tological investigation. Western metaphysics holds within it an implicit assumption that the cosmos is constructed of substantial constituents, in which the fundamental units of reality are static and undifferentiated (Seibt, 2018). In contrast, relational ontologies hold the premise that reality is, instead of consisting of individual objects with attributes, ‘made’ of interconnected processes of becoming. The idea that individual objects exist is the result of our tools of perception (we perceive separate objects in an external reality for everyday purposes (Bergson, 1903)) and a consequence of the “fallacy of misplaced concreteness” (Whitehead, 1929), which holds that we believe single lin- guistic terms reflect individual objects, so that our language solidifies a reality in motion. In other words, our everyday navigation and language systems are built around an implicit atomistic ontology, with objective reality described in terms of nouns rather than dynamic verbs.
Arguably the most comprehensive metaphysical system based on this understanding is Whitehead’s (1929), though his framework is often deemed somewhat impenetrable. That said, one can see that Whitehead’s view of subjectivity is conceptualised in a temporal manner, an act of becoming. Whitehead places events and the processes of their arising and passing as the most accurate descrip- tion of ontological reality, as opposed to the prevailing (un)holy trinity of space, time and matter. He also employs a version of panpsychism that holds that the events that constitute reality (actual occasions) enjoy and exhibit some degree of subjectivity. Although avoiding some of the core prob- lems of substance-based panpsychism, this ontology still fails to account for the combination problem articulated previously.
Versions of relational ontologies are contained within the new materialism movement, a group of philosophical perspectives that do not seek to homogenise matter, but rather make room for its heterogeneity. The new materialists argue quantum experiments have put an end to substance-based ontology and that we must begin to see matter not as substance but rather as force or movement (Meillassoux, 2008). This is a promising movement for metaphysics in that its offshoots take into account quantum processes that physicalism fails to address, such as the measurement problem, whilst also overcoming post-Kantian anthropocentric ‘limits’ on metaphysics. A key thinker in this space is Karen Barad, who proposes a relational ontology of “agential realism” in which matter is seen as a dynamic expression of intra-active becoming. For Barad (2007), agentiality is occurring in a world that is becoming different than it is at all times, and phenomena and objects do not exist prior to their relationship but, rather, objects emerge through ‘intra-actions’. Agential realism implies a ubiquity of meaning (versus panpsychism’s ubiquity of mind) but does not address the par- ticular component parts in terms of their relationship to the whole. Instead, each expression is seen purely as an unfolding of the entirety. It remains to be seen, however, whether agential realism is legitimate in its transposition of indeterminacy at the quantum level to the macro level.
Although the relational ontologies of Whitehead, Barad and other new materialist thinkers act as marked improvements on physicalist ontology, several core issues can be raised. Without a substance-based metaphysics, it is not clear how one can define a dynamic process category feature, (though this critique could be nullified as language evolves more dynamic descriptive capacities), while there is as yet no indication from an ontological perspective how a philosophy of becoming corresponds to a reality of space and time. Yet I believe pushback against relational ontologies relate more significantly to issues of pragmatism, as outlined below.
The impenetrability of relational ontologies, from the perspective of a prerequisite need for scientific adroitness (Barad), neologisms (Whitehead) and the following of complex logic, render these perspectives, in general, inaccessible. This is problematic. An inaccessible metaphysics saturated in complexity, while potentially an improvement upon materialism, does little to re-integrate metaphysics back into mainstream discourse. It maintains, and indeed widens, the chasm between philosophers and the populous. I believe it is essential for the flourishing of society for us to widen the net of metaphysical reach, so that we begin to look beyond the superficial consciousness of materialism. If we are to re-establish metaphysics as a driving force in everyday life, in our systems and our institutions, as Panikkar (2010) suggests we used to, then factors such as intelligibility and elegance should be important considerations alongside philosophical thoroughness. Relational ontologies fail on these accounts. In fitting with this, I propose a perspective of pragmatic metaphysics.
Pragmatic metaphysics would rank metaphysical systems not just in terms of their philosophical rigor but also in terms of their applicable impact, so that the strength of a metaphysical theory would be judged not only by its conceptual thoroughness but also by its ability to positively impact life itself. Put differently, the validity of the ontological conjecture would be seen as inextricable from its practical applications. Such a claim might be characterised by the following conditions:
- Philosophically sound and rigorous
- Consistent with, and not in opposition to, relativist and quantum scientific inquiry
- Positive net utility on Life (potentially defined by practical usage and ability to cause Good)
Physicalist ontology would satisfy criteria (3), (4) and 5), but would fail on (1) (2) and (6) (as deconstructed previously). Panpsychism would fit (2), (3), (4), (5) and (6) but its combination prob- lem means (1) is left unsatisfied. Relational ontologies a la Whitehead and Barad fulfil (1) and (2), yet fall widely short on (3), (4) (5) and (6). Alas, this is by no means an exhaustive list, but rather the beginning of a suggested conditional schema for system comparison. For example, one could weight categories in terms of importance, with the majority of the skew towards (1) and (2).
On factor (6), a metaphysical system that corresponds most to greater utility might be one that em- phasises the sacred dimension of Being, implicates our interconnectedness or simply points to the sentience of nature and earth. This is in contrast to physicalist ontology, which posits that humans are separate entities in a mechanical universe (and evidently results in a dismissal of others as Other and nature as exploitable).
A metaphysical claim that weighted pragmatism may be incomplete, conceding comprehensiveness for practicality. I argue such a concession is both a worthwhile and necessary endeavour. A pragmatic metaphysics would accept its own incompleteness, not because of conceptual inferiority but rather on the understanding that we will never have a totalising account of reality (Desmond, 2007; Panikkar, 2010). We have the choice as metaphysicians to continue down the Whiteheadian path of complexity and perpetual unfolding of logic or we accept that a totalising metaphysical system is, for now, an impossible feat. Should we embrace the latter, we can begin to ground metaphysics strategically, placing it back in society alongside science.
Let us put this framework to use, in considering the ontology of monistic idealism as one such proposition. Physicalism and panpsychism imply that some arrangement of entities circumscribe consciousness, whereas idealism suggests said combinations are themselves circumscribed by consciousness. I find this to be the ontological perspective that is both the most elegant within the con- text of science and philosophy and most congruent to personal experience. Monistic idealism avoids the ‘hard problem’ of consciousness of physicalist ontology whilst also overcoming the combination problem that plagues the perspective of panpsychism. In relation to the aforementioned conditions, monistic idealism has been thoroughly articulated philosophically in various Western and
Eastern traditions (Kastrup, 2010), is consistent with old and new forms of science (Radin, 2006), is parsimonious (Kastrup, 2010), intelligible (“all is contained in a single awareness), accessible (Spira, 2017), and emphasises interconnectivity, thus satisfying the proposed conditions.
I have been drawn to monistic idealism (and non-dual philosophy) since a particular course of med- itation designed to invoke persistent non-symbolic experience (Martin, 2017) left me with an insight into the nature of reality that I fundamentally intuited as ‘more true’ than the relativistic un- derstanding I had been living by. Somewhat Bergsonian, it was my intuition that pointed towards my Being-ness as nonlocal awareness, the sense that universal consciousness just is, and that ‘I’ am said consciousness individuated. This ‘understanding’ stayed with me for several weeks before I lost its essence after taking a break from practice. This catalysed my interest in idealism, since it was a consciousness-only paradigmatic experience that I had stepped into. In considering why I felt it to be ‘more’ true, my experience of reality was not that there is no distinction between objects, but rather that the base ontological container and nature of said objects is the same — consciousness. It was a prolonged experience of lucidity, the dirt cleared from my windscreen, an intuition that consciousness (though not thought itself) is fundamentally primary, the screen upon which the film of reality is projected.
To ensure my attempts to provide ontological rigour are not overtly coloured by my personal experience, I will examine idealism from the lens of Kastrup (2015), who holds a unique vantage point, much like Barad, in that his training is both in physics and philosophy. As with panpsychism, there are a multitude of iterations of the category, but for the purposes of this essay, let us propose ideal- ism to be based upon two central claims. First, that consciousness is irreducible, and second, that the entirety of nature is reducible to unitary consciousness. Kastrup (2015) outlines several scientif- ic facts about the nature of consciousness and reality (such as there are tight neurological correlates between the brain and experience) and concludes in various iterations that the most parsimonious ontology, “that which requires the smallest number of postulates whilst maintaining sufficient ex- planatory power to account for all facts” (Kastrup, 2015) is one of monistic idealism.
Kastrup builds his argument on the following inferences:
- The most parsimonious underpinning for experience is that that which experiences and experience itself are ontologically equal
- Experience is an excitation of that which experiences
- That which experiences is an ontological primitive
- That which experiences is associated with the entire cosmos
- Living organisms are iterations of a universal ‘mind at large’ that experiences
For Kastrup, reality is akin to a stream of water. Experiences are constructed by the movements, ‘excitations,’ of water. Objects are the ripples experienced subjectively by the stream itself, while living organisms are ‘whirlpools,’ localisations of the flow of experiences in the stream. Personal awareness is an illusion of separateness deriving from a process of localisation.
Monistic idealism functions effectively as an ontology in that it overcomes the hard problem of consciousness by positing that consciousness is primary and matter its excitations. Since consciousness itself is taken to be the central ontological primitive, it does not need to be described in other terms. Indeed, from an idealist ontology, the ‘hard problem’ exists purely in the conceptual structure of physicalism. Meanwhile, the core combination problem of panpsychism is also overcome, through seeing living organisms as unitary rather than composite. To extend the water metaphor, panpsychism in essence suggests that water is constituted of ripples since individual ripples are dis- cernible in water. But in monistic idealism, ripples make up the structure of the movements of water, not of water itself. Since experiences are “excitations” of that which experiences, that which experiences cannot be experienced without the excitations. Instead, it consists purely of the poten- tial for experiences, corresponding to some of the great Eastern traditions that view reality as poten- tial, as well as to the vacuum state of quantum theory, (or, as Brian Swimme refers to it, the “uni- versal nourishing abyss”), to the ’branes’ of M-Theory and the ‘superstrings’ of Superstring Theory. Indeed, the applicability of idealist ontology corresponds gracefully our understandings of both relativistic and quantum physics (Radin, 2006) in that all that is needed is the readjustment of con- sciousness from the ‘end’ of an emergent physical process to its very foundation. Idealist ontology also provides a better explanation than physicalism for the Copenhagen and Many-Worlds interpretations of quantum mechanics (Kastrup, 2015).
That said, Kastrup’s thesis commences with assuming the consciousness that he is trying to argue for, building his argument entirely on a premise that is itself not challenged. Although a consciousness primary model is harmonious, actually proving it, given that all experience is within it, seems impossible. Moreover, pluralistic forms of ontology as opposed to monistic appear to correspond to how most people ‘experience’ the world, and simultaneously do not deny the potential of unity, only that all things are not necessarily unified. Various other iterations of objections to idealism have been articulated over the years, including the private minds problem (we do not experience a collec- tive mind), the felt concreteness objection (matter appears real) and the autonomy of nature. Moreover, such idealism tends to be given precedence due to its reporting in relation to mystical experi- ences, but the notion that those undergoing mystical experiences have somehow a more accurate, rather than different, perspective on ontology is chal- lengeable.
All things considered, Panikkar (2010, p8) states “we have to overcome the assumption that anything important should be complicated.” Our scientific worldview of abstractionism cultivates a sense of “disciplina arcani” (ibid.) only for the initiated. Perhaps our attempts to articulate meta- physics suffers from the same fate of our general cultural discourse, pervaded with abstract sparring matches and exhibitions of cerebral dominance. Monistic idealism returns us to an elegant view of reality that is universally accessible without the need for Baradian physics models or Whiteheadian neologisms, whilst being fully consistent with the latest science. Moreover, although metaphysi- cians were likely always in the minority of the population, speculative endeavours were once inti- mately interwoven with the practical and political matters of the day (Panikkar, 2010, p9) and yet today hold no place in modern discourse. This is nothing short of disastrous. Our baseline philoso- phies act as the meta-narratives for how our institutions are formed, our futures planned and our lives lived. The loss of metaphysics is the loss of a spiritual directionality that kept previous cul- tures on course. Thus it is of absolute necessity that we bring this back to the everyday man and woman. The fate of metaphysics matters. I believe a pragmatic metaphysical lens is the strategic framework needed right now to bring this back into the mainstream, and monistic idealism to be the system that best fits its conditions.
I believe Desmond (2005) was correct in highlighting our inability to totalise a system of understanding. Projects of complete explanation are always going to fail because the world is more than we can think about it and more than we can say about it. That said, the ultimate totalising field of inquiry — metaphysics — must not be given up on. Our fundamental ontologies act as the meta-narratives upon which everything else is based. Indeed, if we are take Barad’s “ethico-onto-epistemology”, one cannot separate metaphysics from more ‘practical’ questions of human existence. The advancements of science juxtaposed with new forms of philosophical thought have birthed a new era in which we can now explore ontological claims with a backdrop of empirical pointers (of course, an ontological ‘proof’ is for now, and potentially forever, out of reach, but science can at least orient us closer to the holy grail). Substance-based materialism is a dying breed, and pan- psychism and relational ontology both act as quasi-materialist upgrades with better accounts of mind than physicalist narratives of emergence. That said, both contain substantial flaws. Monistic idealism, on the other hand, gracefully fits into the picture of science and avoids the combination problem of panpsychism and the terminological and conceptual complexity of relational ontologies. Moreover, it embodies parsimony, intelligibility, accessibility and utility, facets of systems that are currently overlooked in terms of philosophical importance but vital for strategically grounding metaphysics back into society. I conclude that since it is integral that metaphysics pervades our lives and our systems once again, pragmatic metaphysics should be employed to a greater extent, and monistic idealism is the ontology that best fulfils its criteria.
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