Are we all multiple personalities of universal consciousness?

Bernardo Kastrup proposes a new ontology he calls “idealism” built on panpsychism, the idea that everything in the universe contains consciousness. He solves problems with this philosophy by adding a new suggestion: The universal mind has dissociative identity disorder.

There’s a reason they call it the “hard problem.” Consciousness: Where is it? What is it? No one single perspective seems to be able to answer all the questions we have about consciousness. Now Bernardo Kastrup 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). He suggests there’s an all-encompassing universe-wide consciousness, it has multiple personalities, and we’re them.


Kastrup’s paper 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. (Kastrup is a computer engineer specializing in A.I. and reconfigurable computing.)

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, what means of exchange, or “language,” could they possibly have in common, and how could they interact? How could a physical experience make our consciousness feel a certain way, and how could a purely mental decision cause our body to take action? And where exactly could this happen?

(Credit: Captblack76/Shutterstock)

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. (We’ve explained this concept in greater detail before at Big Think.) 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: It’s as if you arranged all the various pieces of a car randomly in a pile and by virtue of sheer proximity, they self-combined into a Prius. This is constitutive panpsychism’s “combination” problem, as in how do all these separate glimmers of consciousness merge to create our individuated consciousnesses.

Another thing: If conscious particles can join with others to create a larger, more complex consciousness together, does this mean the universe is itself one unimaginably large unified mind? And if so, how can private, personal, concurrent but non-overlapping consciousnesses emerge from the universal consciousnesses, each one of which has its own personality and experiences? 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 “dissociation has an identifiable extrinsic appearance. In other words, there is something rather particular that dissociative processes look like.”


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. Kastrup writes, “Through EEGs, the doctors were able to ascertain that the brain activity normally associated with sight wasn’t present while a blind alter was in control of the woman’s body, even though her eyes were open. When a sighted alter assumed control, the usual brain activity returned.”

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, “When she was not interacting with the world, she did not become dormant, but persisted and was active.” Other research has seen, says Kastrup, that alters “‘might intervene in the lives of others [that is, other alters], intentionally interfering with their interests and activities, or at least playing mischief on them.’ It thus appears that alters can not only be concurrently conscious, but that they can also vie for dominance with each other.”


(Credit: Photographee.eu/Shutterstock)

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 “patterns of self-excitation of cosmic consciousness.” That’s to say there is no physical world, no steering wheel in front of you—rather, “It is the variety and dynamics of excitations across the underlying ‘medium’ that lead to different experiential qualities.”

This isn’t as out-there as it may at first seem. We’ve 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: There is no out there out there.

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:

a) Grounding experience in cosmic consciousness: how do myriad, ephemeral experiential qualities arise in one enduring cosmic consciousness?
b) The decombination problem: how do private phenomenal fields form within cosmic consciousness? Why can I not read your thoughts by simply shifting the focus of my attention?
c) Reducing perception: how can the revealed order of nature (the physical world we measure) be explained in terms of its concealed order (its underlying thoughts)? Why are the respective qualities so different?
d) Explaining the correlations between brain function and inner experience: if brain function does not constitute or generate phenomenality, why do they correlate so well?
e) Explaining a seemingly shared, autonomous world: if the world is imagined in consciousness, how can we all be imagining essentially the same world outside the control of our personal volition?

It’s a very interesting argument.

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7 brilliant Japanese words we need in English

Ever wanted to describe precisely how crummy you feel after a bad haircut?

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  • English is a phenomenal language, but there are circumstances where words seem to fail us.
  • Often, other languages have already found a solution to expressing the complicated ideas that can't be succinctly conveyed in English.
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Don't get me wrong. The English language has some very excellent words. There's petrichor, the pleasant smell of the first rain after warm and dry weather. Paraprosdokian—which describes sentences that end surprisingly, forcing the reader to reinterpret the first half—is both oddly specific and fantastic to say out loud. I'm even a fan of new inventions, like tweetstorm, even if I'm not a fan of the experience.

But English-speaking culture—like any culture—has a limited perspective on the world. Just like English, Japanese also has some five-star words that English could stand to borrow. The Japanese have an entirely different perspective on the world than many English-speaking cultures—as proof, it's tough to imagine that the politely reserved Japanese have a word for defenestrate, or the act of throwing somebody out of a window. Here's the top 7 Japanese words that we could use in English.

1. Ikigai

(Flickr user Raul Pacheco-Vega)

Literally translating to "life value," Ikigai is best understood as the reason somebody gets up in the morning—somebody's reason for living. It's a combination of what you are good at, what you get paid to do, what you love to do, and what the world needs.

We often find our ikigai during flow states, which occur when a given task is just challenging and absorbing enough that we forget time has passed, that "in the zone" sensation. But it's more nuanced than something that is simply absorbing or a passion; it's a fulfilling kind of work that benefits oneself and others.

2. Karoshi

Karoshi, or death from overwork, provides a nice contrast to the concept of ikigai. Japan's work culture is so over the top that dying from working too hard is not uncommon. This word covers a range of ailments from heart failure to suicide, so long as the root of their cause is in working too hard.

As another hardworking nation, the U.S. could stand to better appreciate the dangers of overwork. Americans put in an average 47 hours a week, which is demonstrably bad for our health.

3. Shinrin-yoku

(Flickr user jungle_group)

This word translates to "forest-bathing," which sums up the activity fairly well. It's getting outdoors to de-stress, relax, and promote well-being. While the concept is familiar, we clearly don't place enough importance on getting outdoors to honor it with its own term.

According to the Environmental Protection Agency, Americans spend about 87% of their time indoors, which is clearly too much. Meanwhile, being in nature is associated with a slew of benefits, like improving memory, reducing stress and anxiety, and even lowering inflammation. Scotland has the right idea—doctors in Shetland can now prescribe nature to their patients.

4. Shikata ga nai

Used interchangeably with shouganai, this term roughly means "it cannot be helped." You can think of it as the Japanese equivalent of c'est la vie´or amor fati. It's the idea that one should accept things outside of one's control with dignity and grace and not implode from the pressure of having no control over a terrible situation.

This concept is a bit controversial. During the U.S. internment of Japanese-Americans after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, many Japanese-Americans resigned themselves to their mistreatment, characterizing the situation as shikata ga nai.

On the other hand, when a tsunami devastated Japan in 2011, many outside observers commented upon the stoic way the Japanese carried on with their daily lives, an example of the positive side of shikata ga nai.

5. Tsundoku

(pexels.com)

While it's a little less high-minded than the previous words on this list, it's certainly one that I and others could use. A combination of tsunde-oku (letting things pile up) and dukosho (reading books), tsundoku is the practice of buying a book you swear you're going to read, obviously not doing that, finding a new book you swear you're going to read, and then letting these abandoned books pile up in your house until it's a certifiable fire hazard.

6. Irusu

Garden State (2004)

You're in a terrible, anti-social mood and don't want to see anybody at all today. Suddenly, your doorbell rings; you lie as still as possible in your bed (surrounded by the hordes of unread books you purchased), praying the unwanted visitor leaves. This is the practice of irusu, or pretending not to be home when somebody rings your doorbell. It's a very common experience, although maybe the modern-day equivalent is responding "Sorry, I just got this" hours after you actually saw a text.

7. Age-otori

Not everybody practices tsundoku, and I'm sure some extroverts are entirely unfamiliar with practicing irusu, but everybody can identify with getting a bad haircut. Age-otori is the feeling one gets after leaving a barbershop looking worse than you did going in. It's an ingenious word for the unique blend of regret, suffering, and shame you feel after you foolishly trusted your elderly barber when he said "Yeah, I can do a hard part."

Bonus words

While Japanese has some phenomenal words, there are some that the English language probably doesn't have need of. For example, a nito-onna is a woman so obsessed with her job that she doesn't have time to iron her blouses and so resorts to wearing knitted tops constantly. It's a wonderfully specific word, but its specificity probably doesn't translate to English-speaking contexts.

There's also the hikikomori, a mostly Japanese phenomenon involving modern-day hermits that don't leave their bedrooms for years and years. People like this exist in English-speaking contexts, but we generally characterize these as people suffering from anxiety, as loners, or hermits. In addition, part of what makes a hikikomori is the high pressure and highly ritualized nature of Japanese society, a feature that is mostly absent in English-speaking contexts.

So, write to our good friends Merriam and Webster. Let's see if we can pack a little more utility into the English language.

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