The Reality Nervous System

By Bernardo Kastrup

source: Wikimedia Commons

“When you see the world you see God. There is no seeing God apart from the world. Beyond the world to see God is to be God.”*
Sri Nisargadatta Maharaj

One of the most important ideas discussed in my new book Brief Peeks Beyond, particularly in Chapters 2 and 9, is the notion that empirical reality – all things we see, hear, touch, smell and taste – can be understood as a nervous system. This may sound extremely counterintuitive at first, even absurd, but it elegantly solves many of the most important unanswered questions in science and philosophy today, such as the nature of matter and the so-called ‘hard problem of consciousness.’ The simplicity and parsimony of this interpretation of reality, together with its surprising explanatory power, render it nearly self-evident in my view. The point is so important that I decided to summarize it in this essay, so to give you a brief sense of its logic and perhaps encourage you to explore it further in the book.

I will lay down the argument point by point, trying to keep it as simple as possible. Further elaboration can be found in the book. Therefore, before you conclude that the interpretation below doesn’t address important empirical elements, please give me the benefit of the doubt and peruse the book.

1 - What do we know about a human brain and what do we merely assume about it? We know that measurable electrochemical activity in and across neurons correlates with contents of consciousness, like our perceptions and emotions. Many of us then assume that, because of these correlations, the brain somehow generates consciousness, even though nobody can explain how. For the sake of argument, let’s leave aside the assumptions and stick to what we know. We are then left with a system that has, in the words of Lee Smolin, external and internal aspects: the external aspect is the brain we can measure, while the internal aspect consists of our conscious feelings and perceptions [Smolin, L. (2013). Time Reborn: From the Crisis in Physics to the Future of the Universe. Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, p. 270]. The external aspect isn’t necessarily the cause of the internal aspect, but simply what the internal aspect looks like when viewed from outside.

2 - However, the brain is merely an arrangement of so-called material particles like, say, a crystal. So unless we can make the case that the internal aspect – that is, consciousness – is associated exclusively with the particular structure of the brain, we have no alternative but to infer that the whole material universe should also have an internal aspect (this is a serious and reasonable speculation that Smolin himself has engaged in). As it turns out, honest scientists and philosophers know that we can’t even coherently conceive of – let alone explain – how consciousness can come out of any particular material structure, unless it is inherently associated with all matter [Chalmers, D. (2003). Consciousness and its Place in Nature. In: Stich, S. and Warfield, F. eds. Blackwell Guide to the Philosophy of Mind. Malden, MA: Blackwell, pp. 102-142]. Therefore, let’s bite the bullet and say that the whole empirical world has an internal aspect, not only brains. The visible universe is then a kind of cosmic brain: a nervous system with unfathomable inner life.  Indeed, a striking comparison published in The New York Times a few years ago shows the similarity between the structure of the universe at the largest scales and biological nervous systems (see the image). A more thorough study has shown that these similarities go way beyond mere appearances. From this perspective, the quote that opened this essay is a simple statement of fact, not a convoluted spiritual metaphor.

3 - Does that mean that a crystal is conscious? Not any more than an individual neuron in a person’s brain can be said to be conscious. From Brief Peeks Beyond:

‘If you daydream about a tropical holiday location with trees, waterfalls and singing birds, all those images will correlate with particular, measurable patterns of activated neurons in your head. Theoretically, a neuroscientist could identify different groups of neurons in your brain and say: group A correlates with a tree; group B with a waterfall; group C with a singing bird; etc. But, based on your direct experience of what it feels like to imagine this scenario, is there anything it is like to be group A in isolation? Is there anything it is like to be group C in and of itself? Or is there only something it is like to be the whole daydreaming you – your whole brain – imagining trees, waterfalls and birds as component parts of an integrated scenario? Do you experience multiple separate streams of imagination – one for trees, another for waterfalls and another for birds – or only one stream wherein trees, waterfalls and birds are all together? Do you see the point? Unless there is dissociation, there is nothing it’s like to be separate groups of neurons in a person’s brain. We can only speak of the holistic stream of imagination of the person as a whole. For exactly the same reason that there is nothing it is like to be an isolated group of neurons in a person’s brain, there is nothing it is like to be an inanimate object.’ (pp. 44-45)

Clearly, there is no reason to say that a rock is conscious the way you and I are. The universe as a whole has an external and an internal aspect, the rock being simply a segment of its external aspect, like an isolated neuron is a segment of a brain. Unless we have good reasons to think otherwise, we must assume that –  just as our own inner life – the internal aspect of the universe is a unified stream of consciousness; ‘God’s dream,’ so to speak. The empirical world we perceive is like a ‘scan of God’s brain’ while dreaming. Creation is the external aspect of ‘God’s’ creative mental activity, just like an active brain is the external aspect of a person’s inner life.

4 - But wait: you and I seem to have entirely separate streams of consciousness. My inner life is not the same as yours, neither do they seem to be connected in any fundamental way. Moreover, neither my nor your inner life has the presumed cosmic scale of ‘God’s inner life.’ Why is that? As I explain in detail in the book, a living organism is the external aspect – the outside image – of a dissociative process in ‘God’s mind.’ Dissociative processes are well known in psychology. They cause a particular segment of our stream of consciousness to separate from the rest of the stream. This separation happens through different forms of amnesia or obfuscation of mental contents. For instance, a person with Dissociative Identity Disorder (DID) has multiple ‘alters,’ or identities. Each alter is seemingly separate from the others and often unaware of the others’ existence, unless told by another person. What I am thus saying is that ‘God’ has DID and we are Its alters. Indeed, I am saying that every living being is what a dissociated alter looks like in the ‘scan of God’s brain’ we call empirical reality. That we can identify biology in the universe is a diagnostic confirmation of ‘God’s DID’ just as the identification of a spot on a brain scan is a diagnostic confirmation of, say, an aneurism. (By this I don’t mean to convey any negative connotations, such as to suggest that life is a disease; the metaphor breaks down at this point.)

5 - The elegance of this view is that it dispenses entirely with the need to postulate anything other than the obvious: consciousness itself. We do not need to postulate a whole material universe outside consciousness anymore. Empirical reality is merely the outside image – the external aspect – of the mental activity of a cosmic consciousness, while body-brains are merely the outside image of dissociated segments of this cosmic consciousness. And what is a body-brain but something we can see, touch, measure; something with the qualities of experience? Indeed, the empirical world is the experience, by an alter, of the rest of the stream of consciousness outside the alter. It is dissociation that creates the duality between internal and external aspects. But this duality does not imply or require anything outside experience: the external aspects are themselves experiences; experiences of alters. As explained in Chapter 9 of Brief Peeks Beyond, ‘everything that currently motivates us to believe in a world outside consciousness can and will be understood as the effects of mental processes outside our particular alter, which we witness from a second-person perspective.’ (p. 207)

So there you go: a simple, parsimonious and, dare I say, elegant and powerful explanation for the most vexing questions facing science and philosophy today. Most significantly, this explanation is not arrived at by adding new theoretical entities or postulates, but precisely by getting rid of unnecessary and inflationary theoretical entities and postulates that have clouded our understanding of reality for centuries now. It’s time we cleaned up the house and restored reason and empirical honesty to our ontology. It’s time we saw a postulated material world outside consciousness – which, absurdity of absurdities, allegedly generates consciousness – for what it is: the tortuous fiction of confused minds.

* Nisargadatta Maharaj, S. (1973). I Am That. Mumbai, India: Chetana, p. 58. The italics are mine.

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