Reality is not what it seems

The universe is made of consciousness

Reality is not what it seems

The idea that reality is fundamentally thought, consciousness, or an idea, as opposed to physical matter, atoms, or particles, is becoming more main stream. The many problems with scientific materialism are finally coming home to roost. But this does not mean reality just is how it appears to be in our own private consciousness of it, writes Bernardo Kastrup.


When we look around ourselves, we perceive a world of qualities: colours, melodies, textures, scents, and flavours. With the automatism of a reflex, we then take it for granted that these qualities are the world; that is, that the world out there, as it is in itself, is made of the colours, melodies, scents, and flavours that appear on the screen of our perception.

Yet, our mainstream metaphysics—physicalism—denies that: according to physicalism, all those qualities exist solely inside our skull, in that they are somehow—nobody has ever coherently and explicitly specified how—conjured up into existence by our brain activity. The world, as it is outside the screen of perception, has no intrinsic qualities. Instead, it is supposed to be a realm of pure quantitative abstraction, which one cannot even visualise, for any visualisation already entails qualities. In other words, the world out there has mass, charge, spin, and linear momentum, but not colour, texture, scent or flavour.

Granted, to mistake what appears on the screen of perception for the world-in-itself is a fallacy known as ‘naïve realism.’ Naïve realists conflate appearance with that which appears, phenomena with noumena, cognitive inner representation with thing-in-itself. It’s like mistaking the pixelated two-dimensional image of a person on a smartphone screen—the appearance, phenomenon, representation—for the actual person. To believe that our perceptions are the world is to ignore, for instance, the demonstrable existence of perceptual illusions.


To say that the world consists of qualities does not entail or imply that it consists of the qualities of our perception


Yet, there is growing awareness, in both academia and Western culture at large, that mainstream physicalism is untenable; that qualities—that is, experiences—are more-than-likely irreducible to physical quantities such as mass, charge, spin, and linear momentum. Instead, the latter are merely descriptions of qualities, not their cause. According to this line of reasoning—to which I subscribe—the world-in-itself is essentially qualitative. Does this then mean that the qualities on the screen of perception are the world out there? That naïve realism is somehow true? No, and here is where the dialogue tends to get muddled because of imprecise use and interpretation of words.

Let us call the qualitative world on the screen of perception the ‘colloquially physical world.’ When we say that the rock in our hand is physical, we are implicitly using this colloquial definition of physicality, as the physical properties we attribute to the rock consist of the felt solidity and texture we experience on the screen of perception when we hold the rock. We also implicitly use this definition when we look around ourselves and claim that the landscape we see is ‘physical.’

Notice that the colloquially physical world is distinct from what we may call the ‘strictly physical world,’ as defined by physics: a world exhaustively describable by quantities alone, entailing no intrinsic qualities. In this strictly physical world, the rock in our hand has no felt solidity or texture. Instead, it consists solely of abstract elementary particles, each with a certain mass, charge, spin, and linear momentum, obeying certain geometric relationships.

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In this context, we can probably all agree on two metaphysical points, regardless of the particulars of our respective metaphysical positions: (a) there is an ‘actual world’ out there, whatever its intrinsic or ontic nature is; and (b) the colloquially physical world does exist as such. To deny (b) is to deny perception itself, which is just foolish. To deny (a) is to be a solipsist, which—although not disprovable—is probably equally foolish. The philosophical debate thus consists of discussing the ontic nature of the actual world and its relationship to the colloquially physical one. For instance, if you are a physicalist, you would say that the former is the strictly physical world, and that the colloquially physical one is conjured up by the brain.

But as the untenability of physicalism is increasingly recognised, we must understand with clarity what the alternative metaphysics of analytic idealism—which affirms that the actual world is intrinsically qualitative and, therefore, not physical in the strict sense—entails and implies. Perhaps even more importantly, we must have clarity about what it doesn’t entail or imply.

When analytic idealists state that the actual world—henceforth simply ‘the world’—is experiential in nature, they are not saying that it is one and the same with the colloquially physical one. In other words, to say that the world consists of qualities does not entail or imply that it consists of the qualities of our perception. Allow me to elaborate.

We now know with de facto certainty that the screen of perception cannot be a transparent window allowing us to perceive the world as it is. The latter would require our cognitive inner states to mirror the states of the world. But since there is no a priori upper bound to the entropy of the world, mirroring them would mean that there is no upper bound to the entropy of our internal states either. Perceiving the world would thus be literally deadly, since our structural and dynamical integrity depend on just such an upper bound. And since nobody has ever spontaneously melted into warm soup just by looking at the world, we know that perception is not a transparent window at all, but a kind of dashboard of dials instead.

Think of an airplane: it has a number of sensors that make relevant measurements of the sky outside. The results of those measurements are then displayed to the pilots in the form of dials—whose scales are designed to limit their entropy, or dispersion of states—on a dashboard of instruments. These dials convey accurate and important information about the sky outside; so much so that the pilots can fly safely by instruments alone, without even looking through the windshield. But the dashboard obviously isn’t the sky; that it conveys accurate information about the sky doesn’t make it identical with the sky.

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When we think of the screen of perception as the world, we are mistaking the dashboard for the world. For we, just like the airplane, have sensors: our retinas, ear drums, inner lining of the nose, etc. These sensors make measurements of the actual world outside, whose results then appear to us in the form of an internal dashboard we call the screen of perception. The resulting colloquially physical world is, therefore, just the dashboard; it isn’t the actual world outside, for the same reason that an airplane’s dashboard isn’t the sky outside.

As such, under analytic idealism perception isn’t the world; contrary to Bishop Berkeley’s famous tenet, to be is mostly certainly not to be perceived; naïve realism is still false. But the world, like perception, is intrinsically qualitative in essence. In other words, the world belongs in the same ontic category as perception—it is of the same type as perception—even though it is not made of the contents of perception. Instead, the world is constituted of transpersonal, non-perceptual experiential states that cannot be characterised in terms of physical quantities.


An analytic idealist can coherently state that the physical world is exactly what it seems to be: it is made of the qualities of perception, for the only physical world that actually exists is the colloquially physical one


We’re all familiar with experiential states that cannot be characterised in terms of physical quantities: what is the weight, in grams, of a thought? What is the length, in meters, of an idea? What is the angular momentum of an emotion? Our endogenous experiential states—thoughts, ideas, emotions—aren’t physically characterisable. By virtue of being endogenous, they are also private to us and not directly accessible to anyone else. By the same token, the idea behind analytic idealism is that the actual world, too, is intrinsically constituted of non-physical experiential states, endogenous to the world and, therefore, private to the world; not directly accessible to us. We can only know something about them when they are represented on our screen of perception, after having been measured by our sense organs. Only then do they become physical, in the colloquial sense. As such, to be physical is to be perceived (which is probably what Bishop Berkeley meant to say but lacked the linguistic precision to do so accurately). Physicality is the dashboard; it is representation, not thing-in-itself.

We now have the language to attempt to rigorously frame the differences between physicalism and idealism when it comes to the nature of the world.

Under physicalism, the actual world is the strictly physical one. And although the colloquially physical world is an internal cognitive representation, the shapes—that is, the contours, the geometric relationships—discernible in it are the shapes of the strictly physical and, therefore, actual world outside. In other words, under physicalism the shapes of the dials on the airplane’s dashboard are the shapes of the thunderstorm in the sky outside, as if the thunderstorm itself were a gigantic dashboard of dials. You be the judge of the plausibility of such an idea.

Under analytic idealism, on the other hand, the following statements apply: the actual world, just like the colloquially physical one, is experiential or qualitative in nature. But it is not constituted of the particular qualities of perception—not even the shapes or contours discernible in perception—for the latter are the dials, not the actual world. Perception consists merely of qualitative representations of other, transpersonal qualities, which in turn constitute the actual world. Still under analytic idealism, the strictly physical world isn’t a thing at all; it is merely a description—conceived by humans and residing entirely in the human mind—of the colloquially physical world, which is itself merely a cognitive representation of the actual world. And that’s all there is to physicality.

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Here are some more differences. A physicalist can coherently state that the physical world isn’t what it seems to be: although the colloquially physical (which is all we can be directly acquainted with) reflects the contours of the strictly physical, the latter (which is the actual world) isn’t qualitative. An analytic idealist, on the other hand, can coherently state that the physical world is exactly what it seems to be: it is made of the qualities of perception, for the only physical world that actually exists is the colloquially physical one.

Similarly, an analytic idealist can coherently state that there is a sense in which the actual world is what it seems to be: like perception and ‘seeming,’ it has an experiential essence, even though it is not constituted of the same experiential states as perception. To a physicalist, however, there is a sense in which the actual world is not at all what it seems to be, in that its essence, unlike that of perception and ‘seeming,’ isn’t experiential at all.

As an analytic idealist, my answer to the title of this essay is thus: yes, the actual world is what it seems to be, in that it is experiential in essence, just like our perception of it. But no, the actual world is not what it seems to be, in that the experiential states that constitute it are not our own perceptual states. The latter are merely cognitive inner representations of the former.


The world is constituted of transpersonal, non-perceptual experiential states that cannot be characterised in terms of physical quantities


Importantly, for an analytic idealist there is indeed an objective world out there, which does what it does regardless of what we think of it. But just like ourselves and our perception of it, that world is essentially qualitative. This is not counterintuitive at all: the thoughts of another person, despite being qualitative in essence, are not in your mind and remain objective from your perspective, in that they would still exist even if you were not around. An analytic idealist infers that, just as the thoughts of another person, nature at large is constituted of experiential states that are not your own (or my own).

Under analytic idealism, physical quantities are merely descriptions, and not even descriptions of the actual world, but merely of our perceptual states. Physical theory models the behaviour of the dials in our internal dashboard, which do convey knowledge about the actual world, but only vicariously.

Having clarity about what more plausible alternatives to physicalism entail and imply is critical for a sound transition to a new worldview. In this context, I hope the clarifications above help ground the dialogue in substance, as opposed to misunderstandings and prejudices.

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Kathy Barrera 29 November 2022

I think so