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Nothing deeper than thought?

Today we chat with Dr. Bernardo Kastrup, PhD in philosophy from Radboud University and PhD in computer engineering, director of Essentia Foundation whose goal it is to expose the flaws of scientific materialism, replacing it with the idea that reality is ultimately and fundamentally mental. You can find more at

David: The emergent concept of temperature is easily obtained by considering the motion of small objects and can be written down as a 1-page calculation. This seems to be the case because both the concepts of temperature and kinetic energy occupy a similar space of ideas. Is it fair to say that thinking of consciousness as an analogous emergent feature, implies in some sense that having experience would have to be the product of some calculation that could be written down? Is that absurd?

Bernardo: It is absurd. Temperature is 'weakly emergent' (as per David Chalmers' definitions), but consciousness would have to be 'strongly emergent.' These are completely different things. In the case of weakly emergent phenomena, we can account for the emergent properties in terms of the underlying microscopic properties. For instance, we can simulate the formation of sand dunes in a computer by starting from the properties of sand grains and wind. But in the case of strong emergency, we can't reduce the emergent properties to any underlying set of non-qualitative entities such as subatomic particles. There is nothing about the physical properties of the particles constituting the brain, or their spatiotemporal relationships, in terms of which we could deduce, at least in principle, the qualities of experience. As such, any attempt to account for consciousness as an emergent phenomenon is just a vacuous, handwaving appeal to an unknown; it merely labels the mystery, it doesn't elucidate it. By saying that consciousness is a strongly emergent property of the brain one is saying precisely nothing, for the statement means literally nothing.

David: If the correct way to understand reality is mental, how do we navigate the apparent difference between the physical law-abiding processes of things around us and the lack of those kinds of constraints for individual thought?

Bernardo: Human thought patterns have evolved in the context of a planetary ecosystem. They have thus been shaped by evolution to be reactive to environmental challenges and, for this reason, it may seem hard to capture them in a simple and predictive manner. If idealism is correct, then the mental activity that constitutes nature at large did not evolve in a planetary ecosystem, but is nature's given, operating according to archetypal patterns (which is what the simplicity and regularity of the laws of nature indicate). So it would be unjustified to expect it to be similar to human thought patterns (Why would the mental activity of nature at large be anything like the mental activity of monkeys evolved on rock called Earth?). That said, psychologists know that even human mental patterns do follow archetypal templates and are, to a surprising extent, fairly predictable.

David: The outsider might think that research in black hole astrophysics is characterized by computational rigor, sound logic, and reasonable inference. This is not my experience. I wonder what things are like in your world. Would you describe yourself as sufficiently intellectually stimulated by your peers or do you feel surrounded by enough confused people that progress remains difficult and frustrating?

Bernardo: Science is done by human beings, so its practice is as flawed as human beings are. That said, we have made tremendous advances since the dawn of the human intellect. Quantum Field Theory, for instance, is spectacularly successful in making predictions, even though it is fundamentally based on a change in perspective that even most physicists today did not yet internalize fully: it completely abandons the notion that nature is made of things, replacing it with the notion that nature is constituted of fields. But fields aren't things; they are merely the potential for things. A non-excited quantum field is literally a vacuum. Based on this counterintuitive understanding that nature is, fundamentally, a kind of vacuum, we can account for phenomena that would be arbitrary magic otherwise, such as quantum fluctuations ('particles' coming magically in and out of existence), particle decay (such as the Higgs boson decaying into two bottom quarks or two muons, even though the Higgs does not contain bottom quarks or muons), the Casimir effect, particle interactions (vis a vis Feymann diagrams), the conciliation between quantum theory and special relativity, and so on and so forth. Therefore, despite human fallibility, rigorous science and philosophy can lead to major, and objective, breakthroughs when reason and evidence are applied judiciously, and practitioners avoid being taken in by metaphysical prejudices (such as the Democritean notion that nature must be constituted of things).

David: Thank you Professor!

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