Many still consider materialism – the view that nothing exists except matter and its movements – the result of years of careful scientific progress stemming from the Enlightenment. But not so argues Bernardo Kastrup. In an exclusive extract of his book, yet to be released, and a result of decades of research, Kastrup charts the historical origins of materialism, why it was a useful fiction and why it is now time to outgrow it
We must face up to the fact that mainstream Physicalism is not only a fiction, but one that isn’t even convenient anymore. In the early days of the Enlightenment, it did serve a socio-political purpose as the tensions between a nascent science and the Church grew. By carving out a metaphysical domain outside ‘spirit’—a translation of the Greek word ‘psyche,’ which also means ‘mind’— early scientists hoped to be able to operate without being burned at the stake, as Giordano Bruno was in 1600. The notion of a physical world fundamentally different from, and outside, psyche must have sounded ludicrous and harmless enough to Church authorities at the time that they left scientists alone.
As a matter of fact, it isn’t a secret that the founders of the Enlightenment were well aware that Physicalism was a political weapon first and foremost, not a plausible account of the nature of reality. Will Durant, in The Story of Philosophy (Simon and Schuster, 1991), points out that Denis Diderot—one of the authors of the Encyclopédie, the founding document of the Enlightenment—acknowledged that “all matter is probably instinct with life, and it is impossible to reduce the unity of consciousness to matter and motion; but materialism is a good weapon against the Church, and must be used till a better one is found” (page 300). Diderot had clarity and honesty about what he was up to, which we can’t say of most self-appointed spokespeople of Physicalism and ‘Scientism’—a naïve and fallacious conflation of science and metaphysics—today.
The historical, sociopolitical, and psychological convenience of the physicalist fiction is almost impossible to overestimate.
Later, in the second half of the 18th century, the industrial revolution—with its railways, steam engines and machine tools—was picking up steam and the emergent commercial class, the bourgeoisie, was accruing social influence. As a consequence of this process, by the time of the July Revolution of 1830 the zeitgeist of the Enlightenment had shifted from edifying art and philosophy to down-to-earth technology and the practical applications of science. At this point, the same notion of a physical realm distinct from psyche not only justified the growing dominance of bourgeois intellectual elites over the clergy, but also provided a psychological handle—a convenient fiction—to help scientists extricate themselves from the phenomena they observed. This, in turn, may have helped increase the objectivity of empirical experimentation at a crucial early juncture for science.
But by the second half of the 19th century, the original Enlightenment clarity that Physicalism was mostly a political weapon—instead of a truly plausible metaphysical hypothesis—had been lost, as chronicled by Charles Taylor in A Secular Age (Harvard University Press, 2007). Yet this, too, came with a payoff; in fact, the biggest psychological payoff of all: understanding phenomenal consciousness—i.e., our very ability to experience—as a mere by-product of physical arrangements eliminated, in one fell swoop, the single greatest fear humankind had had throughout its history; namely, the fear of what we will experience after death. For if our minds are generated by living brains, then there will be no consciousness to experience anything after death.
The angst of the great unknown—codified in Christian mythology as the fear of Hell—was suddenly gone, along with all the moral responsibility that had hitherto oppressed the lives of Christians. All of our worries, regrets, anxieties, etc., were now guaranteed— whether we liked it or not, believed it or not—to come to an end at the moment of death. It is hard for us today to imagine what a profound liberation this must have felt like, for we now take this liberation entirely for granted. Perhaps only the Reformation, a couple of centuries prior, could be compared to it. The fear that had allowed the Church to singlehandedly control practically the entire population of the European continent for over a millennium was suddenly off the table. It’s no wonder that Physicalism accrued so much cultural momentum ever since, despite being perhaps the worst metaphysical hypothesis—in terms of explanatory power, conceptual parsimony, empirical adequacy, internal consistency, and overall coherence—ever to gain mainstream status in any society on the planet.
The greatest embarrassment of mainstream Physicalism is its fundamental inability to account for phenomenal consciousness
The historical, sociopolitical, and psychological convenience of the physicalist fiction is almost impossible to overestimate. Through most of the 20th century, it was even used to justify itself, in a surreal feat of circular reasoning. For the greatest embarrassment of mainstream Physicalism is its fundamental inability to account for phenomenal consciousness—i.e., the existence of experience—which is nature’s sole pre-theoretical, given fact. Indeed, phenomenal consciousness precedes theory epistemically, in that all theories arise and exist within it. But by pronouncing phenomenal consciousness an epiphenomenon of the physical world—a mere byproduct of brain processes, devoid of causal powers of its own—without any explanation as for how this could possibly be so, mainstream Physicalism eliminated consciousness from the agenda of human investigation; it suppressed the very thing that could expose its own most fundamental shortcoming. To put it simply, the idea was that, since we assume that consciousness is epiphenomenal and absent from the causal nexus anyway, we don’t really need to bother about finding out how it comes about—how utterly convenient! One can clearly see this circularity in the development of, e.g., Positivism and Behaviorism in the 20th century. And it took until 1974, with Thomas Nagel’s seminal paper titled “What is it like to be a bat?”, for consciousness to (very) slowly return to the investigative agenda.
Our culture’s confidence in mainstream Physicalism is a historical psychosocial phenomenon largely unrelated to reason and evidence. The only reason most of us don’t see this is that our lives are too short for us to discern the relatively slow, subtle ebb and flow of cultural history in which we are immersed. We spend almost the entirety of our ephemeral existences surrounded by learned elites who seem very confident in their internally inconsistent, empirically untenable, and explanatorily hopeless views. And thus, we think that mainstream Physicalism must be true; how could all these people be wrong? Yet, history shows that ‘all these people’ have always been wrong before, while reason and evidence show that they are wrong now too.
Analytic Idealism—the subject of this book—represents a correction of our known metaphysical mistakes; a step forward. As I shall soon argue, it offers the most plausible and parsimonious hypothesis we have today about the nature of reality. Herein lies the value of what you are about to read.
I have written ten earlier books and a Ph.D. thesis on the subject, not to mention a number of technical papers in academic journals, blog posts, and popular science & philosophy essays in major publications. So, what is new in this particular volume? As the title of this book indicates, here I attempt to summarize, in an informal but direct manner, the key salient points of Analytic Idealism and the argument that substantiates it. Ideas from several of my previous writings are revisited here, but often in a new form, from a different slant. And they are brought together so to give you the briefest and most compelling overview of Analytic Idealism I could muster.
In addition, as I’ve found myself having to explain and defend Analytic Idealism in countless interviews, Q&A sessions, panels, debates, courses, and other public events over the years, I’ve had to distill a more optimal way to bring forth the core ideas. I’ve learned over time what the main difficulties are that different people have with Analytic Idealism, and refined ways to explain it so to meet people where they are, honouring their intuitions and tackling their hidden assumptions more explicitly. All these learnings and refinements are built into the present volume.
Stylistically, my previous ten books were meticulously documented. The same goes for my second PhD thesis and my many technical papers in peer-reviewed academic journals. I thus believe that I have earned the right to discuss Analytic Idealism now in a less formal, less documented, but more fluent and easy-to-read manner, capturing the most salient points in more intuitive, colloquial language. This is what I try to achieve in this book. Unlike previous writings, here I shall thus deliberately avoid formal literature citations, bibliography, and notes. Whenever a literature reference seems particularly productive or unavoidable, I shall mention it in the running text, just as I already did above.
This book is meant to be as close as possible to a verbal discussion of Analytic Idealism, as if I were explaining it to you in person. The tone adopted deliberately reveals more aspects of my own humanity and emotional state to the reader, which can be contrasted to the drier and more objective character of my technical writings. For those readers who prefer or require a technical and more rigorously documented argument, I recommend my earlier output, much of which—such as the academic papers and thesis—is freely available online.
This is an extract from Bernardo Kastrup’s Upcoming Book ‘Analytic Idealism In A Nutshell’ that will be published by Iff Books in 2024.