Idealism Is More Parsimonious?

Idealism Is More Parsimonious? March 4, 2021

Holy crap. So we are now positing that the entire universe “suffers” from a multiple personality disorder because we need to solve a non-problem that we created ourselves out of stubbornly postulating that there is something special and quasi-magical about consciousness.

— Massimo Pigliucci

Recently, I have been looking into idealism and the beliefs of Bernardo Kastrup in particular. I think Kastrup is an especially persuasive thinker because he has that polymath quality and knows his stuff, from psychology across to quantum physics. He has a couple of PhDs, and this shows.

In “Materialism As a Position of Faith“, I stated:

What are phenomenology and idealism?

(Skip to the next section if you remember this from the other day.)

Well, Phenomenology is the study of structures of consciousness as experienced from the first-person point of view. Let’s take it back to Descartes and then on from there. Cogito ergo sum: I think; therefore, I am. Whatever “I” is exists indubitably. In order to doubt we exist, we have to exist.

We could take this one step further to say: I experience; therefore, experience exists. Idealism is the metaphysical philosophical position that the mental world, the realm in which our consciousness exists (or that is our consciousness), is all there is. The material world is a representation of something that we then experience, or that is created by our minds. We should not confuse the map with the terrain and think that the things we experience are the reality in material form.

Idealism can take many forms. I like to see it as a continuum from solipsism – the belief that your mind is the only mind, and that the whole of reality is a figment of your mind – to a form of panpsychism (but not panpsychism – I’m sure there is a word for this) – where your experience and other minds are all part of some uber-consciousness or Absolute Spirit or some such overarching non-material framework.

Materialism, on the other hand, is the belief that we exist and that we experience a real, external world made of matter (sometimes physicalism is preferred to encompass the weirder aspects of physics). When I touch the table, the table really exists, even though my experience of it might not be a 1:1 correspondence to the external object. This is a form of realism.

Immanuel Kant came along and developed his (what was later to be known as) phenomenology to declare that we, the experiencer, could not know the thing-in-itself (Ding an sich), the external object – the noumenon. Because we are necessarily subjective experiencers, we will always be subjectively experiencing such stimuli within our own phenomenological frameworks, thus producing the phenomenon – an object of our senses.

This was the start of idealism that has since developed into many different flavours.

Much of this and more, even as it pertains to the science of quantum physics and Bell’s Theorem (both of which Kastrup claims clearly show idealism to be true) can be seen in this talk (he starts talking about quantum etc. at around 22 minutes). “The description is prior to the thing described – sound insane, right? Because it is insane!”:

Kastrup is a naturalist who says that nature is a mental process that is a “spatially-unbound unitary thing” – “transpersonal instinctive processes” where “instinct is preditable” (this is what underwrites the scientific predictability of idealism). “Nature behaves the way it doesw because it is what it is”. In one part he says:

“Hey, there is only one ‘you’ going on here, and it’s you and it’s me and it’s everybody else and that’s all that’s going on. Everything else is a fantastic confabulation of mind and mind does it because it is its primary directive to do it. It’s wht nature is; it exciters itself and it produces this collective dream.”

I am an indirect realist materialist myself, which can be defined in this way:

This states that it is highly probable that there is an external physical world of objects or things/events that corresponds indirectly to some objects of perception in the sense that some objects of perception are causally dependent on real objects.

But we do not have direct access to the external objects of reality, but only to some conscious “objects of perception” that are causally dependent on them. That is to say, the objects and events of the world of matter and energy described by science are not objects of immediate experience/“objects of perception”.

Sorry to have to lay the groundwork out again, but I need to make sure the readers are on the right page.

Remember, science and evidence cannot really be brought in very easily to conclude one way or the other since materialism and idealism both explain the ontology of the entire universe, within which is contained science and scientific explanations. Data are sensed. We collect observations. In other words, working out our phenomenology and what experience actually is happens before making conclusions about what we end up sensing.

It is why I think there is something of an impasse and also why I don’t think it matters all that much as to whether you are an idealist or a materialist.

Parsimony

As such, idealism is an entirely plausible ontology that may offer the most parsimonious and explanatorily powerful option yet to make sense of reality.

On the Plausibility of Idealism: Refuting Criticisms“, Bernardo Kastrup

Someone like Kastrup make a really big thing of parsimony – Ockham’s Razor. Ockham’s Razor (OR) is the principle that, given two explanations that do the same job, if one unnecessarily has a multiplication of entities (more explanatory layers and complexity), then the simpler one is preferred.

I use this as a rule of thumb, as do many people. It’s worth noting that, in reality, OR does not necessarily hold. It might depend on what aspects of a given explanation you are looking at. For something invoked so often in debate, it is not as skeptically analysed as one might think. I remember finding out about this in the very early days of my skepticism in listening to The Infidel Guy who had on Dr. Kevin Kelly from Carnegie Mellon University. The podcasts are sadly no longer available. Kelly has researched OR a great deal, and his views are greatly revised, with a huge catalogue of work on the matter. He espouses the Ockham efficiency theorem.

It seems an interesting approach too ontology, but we could surely imagine a reality that is simpler than the one we have: fewer planets; fewer elements; fewer physical constants and laws; and so on. These aren’t explanations, but something explains them, and the fewer things to explain, the simpler the explanation. We could imagine more, too. The point is, this is what we have, and we’re not entirely sure why it is the way it is. It just is. But our search to simplify everything in a Theory of Everything with the fewest entities is perhaps just wishful thinking. At a fundamental level, whether there are one dimensions or two, or three or four, leaves me with a “meh” impression.

Whatever level of complexity and explanations for that complexity there are we can conceive of fewer and more simplistic explanations. But that is not the reality we have. So I don’t really see the issue with a dualistic or some other form of materialistic reality.

The Encyclopedia Britannica recognises potential issue:

Philosophers usually conceive of Occam’s razor in terms of two kinds of simplicity: syntactic and ontological. Syntactic simplicity refers to the elegance of a theory, meaning that the theory itself is concise, relying on fewer assumptions than other theories. By contrast, ontological parsimony refers to the object a theory is trying to explain, specifically the object’s simplicity as a phenomenon. In debates surrounding the philosophy of mind, Occam’s razor is often cited in defense of physicalism—the concept that everything, including our mental state, can be reduced to physical things or processes or their properties. In contrast to physicalism, dualismpostulates that reality consists of two distinct elements, mind and matter.i Physicalism can be seen as an example of ontological parsimony, because the object it describes—physical existence—requires a singular entity, as opposed to the two entities required by dualism. However, physicalism can also be interpreted as more complex, and hence less elegant, than dualism, because it requires us to conceptualize what seem to be two basic kinds of entities as ultimately being one kind. In terms of syntactic simplicity, then, dualism can be seen as the more straightforward concept. Because of Occam’s razor’s ability to justify multiple competing theories, some critics believe that the principle is too interpretation-based to be useful.

In terms of explanation, idealism says:

We know there is a dimension of experience. Everything exists within this immaterial dimension, including our representations of “matter” and the objects themselves. This also explains consciousness and eliminates the hard problem of consciousness (how we get qualia or subjective experiences from matter/brain).

Or:

(1) Mental Experience –> (of as well as part of) mental world –> informs mental experience

Materialism says:

We know there is a dimension of experience. Our experiences are often of the external world to our mind. We have experiences of objects that we see as mental representations, but these things exist outside of our minds as material entities. This presents the hard problem of consciousness whereby we cannot explain how qualia derive from matter.

Mental experience –> material world –> informs mental experience + creates mental experience.

(2) Either matter is all there is but somehow needs to explain or eliminate the mental, or (3) matter and mental, as two separate categories, exist and interact.

Both (1) and (2) are types of momism – the first and immaterial monism, the second a physicalist monism.

There are two elements to OR here: explanatory power and simplicity.

Kastrup, for example, will say that idealism is preferable not only because it is simpler, but because it explains more things. It doesn’t assume any kind of dualism, or another dimension to explain mental experience; but it also explains more – the hard problem of consciousness.

He actually makes more claims, as referenced before, regarding quantum and other scientific principles and evidence. I am not going to deal with them today (partly because I am no expert on quantum!).

I do, however, want to look at the simplicity aspect to his sort of idealism.

Kastrup sets out how his idealism is “the most parsimonious ontological explanation for” nine facts that he lays out about reality. You can find his account on pages 3-10 in “An Ontological Solution to the Mind-Body Problem“.

Idealism’s supposed simplicity

The issue I have is in claiming that a mystery, or a mysterian approach, is somehow simpler. What Kastrup is doing is claiming that there is an immaterial world, a universal consciousness, that more parsimoniously explains all the observations we make about the world – and that, indeed, this world is itself part of the same immaterial fabric.

By doing this, however, he appears to be making a number of ad hoc arguments and inferences. We are missing an awful lot of big hows. This universal mind has dissociative boundaries, where individuals are different alters that together make up the universal mind and immaterial reality. It is very hard to actually evidence this hypothesis of psyches or alters. What Kastrup does is look at psychology and apply that to the ontology of the whole universe. I guess that is consistent in seeing the psychology of a human with DID – dissociative identity disorder – and applying the individual mind’s ability to split itself up and apply that to the universal mind to explain different minds (people) and, well, everything.

But it’s rather unfalsifiable and largely untestable. Idealists can claim the same for materialism, of course.

Moreover, when we really feel like we are touching a table, and when we create a language of physics that represents these phenomena (matter) in terms of wave functions and other such ideas, these representations (which I agree they are) are not the intuitive representations of an external material world that we intuit they are.

Indeed, for every claim there is about the material world, that phenomenon is a representation for the materialist, and that representation really “is” that thing – we are feeling a table right there – just interpreted through our lenses. For the idealist, it is still a representation, but that thing does not have ontic existence. Our intuitions and our experiences are not what they appear. The table really isn’t there. The idealist has to argue that this is an even larger mirage, of sorts, in a much more fundamental way than the materialist. The initial interpretative layer is then added to with another layer to reinterpret what appears material back into immaterial. I don’t see this as taking away a layer, but adding another layer on top!

To me, this is adding a level of complexity itself in trying to achieve simplicity!

Furthermore, as I have mentioned, I’m not sure it is all that useful as an explanation. This is something Laird Shaw appears to recognise:

That argument can be expressed in terms of the conceptual schema that I suggested in my initial review, in which the distinction bears some elaboration. Basically, I suggest two fundamental categories of being at the most abstract level: firstly, “pure” individual consciousnesses (as subjects) – “pure” in the sense that there is nothing to them other than the capacity for both experience and volition (in Bernardo’s schema, this might be seen to correspond to “the medium of mind at rest”) – and then the “stuff” (structured energy) through which those consciousnesses experience and will (which might in Bernardo’s schema be seen to correspond to the “excitations” of the medium of mind). This “stuff” constitutes personal experience (the “contents” of consciousness as structured energy), personal mental faculties such as cognition (also a structured energy insofar as each thought has unique qualitative properties and relationships with other thoughts and “stuff”), as well as the world “out there”, insofar as chairs, tables, etc, are also in essence simply structured energy of some sort or another….

So, having acknowledged and framed Bernardo’s argument from parsimony, what of his idea of a universal mind? I suggest, on this conceptual schema, that the universal mind (“mind-at-large”) can best be conceived of as the sum total of the (mental) “stuff” of reality combined with the subject with which that sum total of “stuff” (corresponding to “excitations” per Bernardo’s schema) is associated. The interesting question though is what (really, “who”) that subject of this mind would be. Either one chooses a subject arbitrarily, or one asserts that all conscious subjects are identical, and thus that the subject of the universal mind is the same as that for all “psyches”, which in turn share the same subject (a “psyche” is in Bernardo’s terminology an individuated, personal consciousness).

Both of these options could, though, themselves be disqualified by a similar argument from parsimony to that which, as described above, Bernardo makes against a mind-independent physical reality. In the first case (some arbitrary subject), the argument runs that we have no need for any (given) subject of consciousness to be associated with all of “the stuff of reality” as an entirety: it serves no explanatory purpose and thus is unnecessary and unparsimonious. In the second, the argument runs similarly that whereas we have introspective knowledge that the universal subject of consciousness associates itself with the “stuff” of our personal minds, we have no knowledge that it associates with all of “the stuff of reality” as an entirety, nor any need to posit that it does.

In summary, whereas parsimony is an argument for Bernardo’s conception of idealism in one sense – the sense in which it is explanatorily-unnecessary to posit that “external” structured energy is of a different category of being than that of “internal” structured energy – it is an argument against it in another sense: the sense in which there is no explanatory need served in postulating a universal mind.

Frank Visser is someone else who thinks that the position is not parsimonious (form “Why Idealism Is Bonkers: Some Reflections on the Philosophy of Bernardo Kastrup“):

The solution offered by idealists is quite artificial and unparsimonious, if you ask me, compared to the realist claim that the world around us is, well… real….

While it may be true that consciousness is (still) the blind spot of science[7], it is equally true that reality is the blind spot of idealism. For our consciousness will tell us no interesting fact about the Periodic System of the elements, or the processes of evolution, or the age of distant galaxies. It will tell us at most (and then even imperfectly) how it feels to be human, and what states of consciousness are possible to us. “Account for consciousness and you explain everything”? Why go to the opposite extreme? Why go in one easy jump from naive realism to cosmic idealism? It seems far wiser to move from naive realism to critical realism, which no longer takes reality at face value and takes the role of projection or brain processes into account….

And is the “hard problem of consciousness“—a term introduced by David Chalmers for the mystery of how the brain can produce a mind—really overcome by stating “there is only cosmic consciousness”? Or is it simply by-passed? For we seem to have a hard problem in reverse now: how can Mind create both mind and body? How do this alter-mind and its appearance-body relate to eachother?

Concluding remarks

This kind of idealism – noetic monism perhaps – is certainly an interesting hypothesis and worthy of much consideration. But on the idea of parsimony as simplicity, I am not sure it does the job people like Kastrup think it does. Claiming all reality is simply one giant thing sounds like it should be simple, but when it runs counter to our everyday experience of reality (that he would claim is historico-cultural baggage), then it seems like too many ad hoc inferences and appeals to mystery are made.

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