Is Western thought marching towards Eastern Idealism?

(Harmonist) – April 6th, 2023 |
by Harmonist staff

By Prof. Richard Grego, PhD, Professor of Philosophy and Cultural History at Florida State College. Originally published by Essentia Foundation.

The philosophy of mind in the West, since the late 20th century, has begun to produce an increasing number of theories that trend in the direction of idealism—even if most are unwilling to embrace it completely. Panpsychism, for instance, is another umbrella term for a group of popular recent theories that attempt to reconcile scientific materialism with consciousness as a fundamental reality. Panpsychism is the general thesis that mind-consciousness, while still ontologically distinct from the rest of the physical universe, is nonetheless integral to it, and a number of prominent formerly materialist neuroscientists and philosophers have expanded their metaphysical purviews to accommodate it. David Chalmers (who coined the term “hard problem”), brain scientist Kristof Koch and eminent philosopher Galen Strawson are former materialists-turned-panpsychists. Phil Goff and Itay Shani have advocated a form of panpsychism known as cosmopsychism—in which consciousness is not only a fundamental element of material reality, but also foundational to it.

In addition to panpsychist theories that portray consciousness as coextensive with the material world, more specific physics-based theories portray mind as emergent from increasingly abstract conceptions of the material world. For example, Roger Penrose and Stuart Hameroff’s “orchestrated reduction” theory locates the origin of conscious awareness in state vector collapse of the Schrödinger wave function at the subatomic level, which takes place in the microtubules of the brain. Giulio Tononi’s “integrated information theory” explains consciousness as the product of bits of quantum information functioning at high levels of complexity. Bernard Carr traces consciousness to dimensions of hyperspace from contemporary string theory.

Beyond these, even more recent theories describe the status of consciousness in terms of straight-forward idealism. Bernardo Kastrup, for instance, conceives of consciousness as the single primordial substrate of all reality—encompassing completely the physical world described by science. Advocating a form of absolute idealism in the tradition of Schopenhauer (in a refined form that he calls “analytic idealism”) Kastrup conceives of material phenomena as kinds of mental qualities—resolving the “hard problem” by turning it on its head. Instead of attempting to explain how mind is possible in a material world, he explains how materiality, and the supposed separation between the mental and material, is all actually a form of conscious experience. Further, fundamental consciousness that creates the material world is a single substrate that only experiences material reality via individual minds, which in turn are dissociated aspects of this conscious substrate itself, like individual identities experienced by a person with multiple personality disorder. Material reality is a construct of the ultimate mind, and individuated minds experience this reality separately because they are estranged from their conscious source.

Interestingly, this trend in contemporary philosophy of mind suggests that the entire way in which Western metaphysics and mind are conceived may be evolving eventually toward some sort of self-transcendence, perhaps via a rapprochement with corresponding perennial ideas in Asian philosophical traditions. Several recent thinkers have drawn significant connections between Western cosmopsychism and idealism on one hand, and Hindu Advaita Vedanta philosophy (especially in its more recent neo-Vedanta formulations) on the other. Miri Albahari, for instance, has examined important similarities between Western cosmopsychism/idealism and Advaita Vedanta, while also noting substantial problems the former sometimes face and that the latter resolves. Western cosmopsychists (and even idealists like Kastrup to some extent), she claims, conceive of pure cosmic consciousness as a kind of ultimate or basic subject that posits the material world and other individual minds as its objects. However, in subtle contrast, Advaita Vedanta contends that the subjective and objective aspects of this reality are one and the same—both unified in the cosmic consciousness of which they are a part—just as the character’s perspective in a dream, and the seemingly external dream-world that this character perceives, are both ultimately aspects of a single unified consciousness that encompasses them both. In Advaita Vedanta, rather than cosmic consciousness being a subject that posits each human mind –along with the apprehensions of each mind—as objects of its own apprehension, “nirvikulpa samadi” (the experience of Brahman or absolute Being, in its primordial state of unmitigated purity), like dreaming consciousness, is instead conscious experience prior to any subject/object duality, which also provides the basis for all the conscious subjects and their material objects of apprehension, generated as aspects of itself. Rather than a subject positing the world as its object, Brahman is the cosmic unity in which subject and object are unified. Advaita Vedanta’s cosmic consciousness is “one without a second” and beyond the subject/object relation that characterizes traditional Western conceptions of consciousness.


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