(Credit: Alex Grey)
No one single perspective seems to be able to answer all the questions we have about consciousness.
Now Bernardo Kastrup 1 thinks he's found one. He calls his ontology 'idealism', and according to 'idealism,' all of us and all we perceive are manifestations of something very much like a cosmic-scale dissociative identity disorder (DID).
1 - Kastrup is a computer engineer specializing in A.I. and reconfigurable computing.
He suggests there's an all-encompassing universe-wide consciousness, it has multiple personalities, and we're them.
Kastrup's paper (The Universe in Consciousness) is an attempt to devise an explanation for consciousness that leaves no unanswered questions behind as other commonly held perspectives do, at least at our current level of scientific knowledge.
Physicalism and substance dualism
There are a seemingly endless array of ultimately unsatisfying isms thrown at the problem of consciousness.
If you've got some time, have a look at the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy.
Here, though, if only to explain what panpsychism, the basis of Kastrup's 'idealism', isn't, it'll be helpful to talk very briefly about two of the most popular ontologies to which it's a response.
Physicalism describes the belief that consciousness is a product of interaction between different types of physical matter.
For many, though, physicalism falls into a seemingly uncrossable chasm between strictly physical processes on one hand, and our "phenomenal experience" - the experience of experiencing - on the other.
One is chemical, electrical, mechanical, and the other is… something else. Physical processes may be able to explain how we know a roaring fire is hot, but not what warmth feels like to us.
In substance dualism, there's physical substance and immaterial substance, consciousness, and they're two separate domains.
This seems intuitively true to a lot of people - think body and soul - but if they are fundamentally different things,
Take one dash of constitutive panpsychism
Kastrup's system is based on an ontology growing popular with some philosophers, and with some physicists, called constitutive panpsychism.
It's basically the idea that everything, all of the tiny subatomic particles that make up the universe's mass, have consciousness, a sense of what it's like to have an experience.
We have consciousness because it's everywhere. In this way, it's all there is.
If so, then, how do separate and mutually aware, interacting individuals arise?
One suggestion is that when enough of these conscious particles come together - there'd be countless numbers of them in each of our brains after all - a more complex, self-aware consciousness is created. Somehow...
This doesn't quite make sense, though:
This is constitutive panpsychism's "combination" problem, as in how do all these separate glimmers of consciousness merge to create our individuated consciousnesses.
This is the ontology's "recombination" problem, and it's what Kastrup's idealism attempts to solve.
Add one dollop of dissociative identity disorder
Here we leave, for a little bit, the realm of brain-bending consciousness talk for the world of mental disorders and fMRI scans.
Dissociative identity disorder (DID) is the current correct term for what used to be called multiple personality disorder. It's the mental condition in which a single person manifests multiple dissociated personalities, each of which is referred to as an "alter".
This hasn't always been a widely accepted phenomenon, but recent research has been validating.
Kastrup cites a 2014 study in which fMRI scans were performed on DID patients and actors re-creating DID symptoms.
Brain activity didn't look remotely the same in the scans, which, Kastrup notes, showed that,
Tyler Durden (no spoilers!)
of Fight Club (20th Century Fox)
Alters are self-contained and internally consistent in terms of memories.
They may even have different physical capabilities though they share the same body, as in the recently studied sighted woman who had blind alters.
Just as interesting - and the real source of Kastrup's interest in the condition - is that there's evidence multiple alters can be active - conscious - at the same time, aware of each other, and competing for control of their body.
He cites a 2009 study of an alter named "Miss Beauchamp" which found,
Other research (First Person Plural - Multiple Personality and the Philosophy of Mind) has seen, says Kastrup, that,
Idealism - A universe with DID
Kastrup suggests that 'if' the entire universe 'is' one mind, the presence of dissociative personalities creating individual consciousnesses could answer questions that defeat other ontologies.
In this view, each of us is an alter, and just like conventional alters are, we can be aware of and interact with each other without mentally overlapping or seeing into each other's minds.
Kastrup proposes our individual experiences in the physical world aren't an issue because they're not what they seem.
In fact (he says), they're merely,
That's to say there is no physical world, no steering wheel in front of you, rather,
This isn't as out-there as it may at first seem.
It was written before about cognitive scientists who suggest that the reality that surrounds us could be very different than what we think since what we see, hear, feel, etc, are merely internally generated representations that help us survive external stimuli.
In Kastrup's premise, it's not actual, physical things out there, but merely bursts of self-excitation coming from elsewhere in the cosmic mind:
This version of idealism, if true, resolves a bunch of issues that vex other perspectives, such as the hard problem, and the DID aspect handles the combination problem.
In fact, Kastrup lists in his paper five concerns his ontology must, and he feels does, satisfy:
It's a very interesting argument.