Well, there’s this website whose name (which includes “Science and Nonduality”) has some strange characters in it, so I’ll just give a screenshot that links to the site:
And on that site, someone named Bernardo Kastrup has decided to go after my view that studying theology is a useless endeavor. I agree with Dan Barker that it’s a “subject without an object,” a thesis I discussed a while back.
Kastrup, who was trained as a scientist (see below) but then jumped the rails and abandoned materialism, has decided that I’m dead wrong—that theology has an object after all, and that he can prove it. He tries to do so in a post called “In defense of theology: a reply to Jerry Coyne.” It’s one of the most convoluted arguments for God I’ve ever seen, right up there with the Ontological Argument, for it “proves” God without using real evidence. And, unless I am so unsophisticated that I can’t grasp the argument, I think it’s based on a faulty analogy. Fiinally, it involves that favorite point of theists: the “mystery” of consciousness.
But first, who is Kastrup? His website profile, includes this:
Bernardo Kastrup has a Ph.D. in Computer Engineering and has worked as a scientist in some of the world’s foremost research laboratories, including the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN) and the Philips Research Laboratories (where the “Casimir Effect” of Quantum Field Theory was discovered). He has authored many scientific papers and four philosophy books: Rationalist Spirituality, Dreamed up Reality, Meaning in Absurdity, and Why Materialism Is Baloney. This latter book is a grand synthesis of his metaphysical views. Bernardo has also been an entrepreneur and founder of two high-tech businesses. Today, he holds a managerial position in the high-tech industry.
“Why Materialism is Baloney” sets off warning bells, but of course that must perforce be the view of someone who’s defending God’s existence.
So what is Kastrup’s argument? In short, it comes in three parts:
1. We are conscious beings who construe reality through our senses and consciousness. This seems simple enough, but Kastrup can’t use ten words when 200 will do:
Consciousness is the only carrier of reality anyone can ever know for sure; it is the one undeniable, empirical fact of existence. As I elaborate extensively upon in my book Why Materialism Is Baloney, we do not need more than this one undeniable fact to explain reality: all things and phenomena can be explained as excitations of consciousness itself. As such, the ground of all reality is an impersonal flow of subjective experiences that I metaphorically describe as a stream, while our personal awareness is simply a localization of this flow — a whirlpool in the stream. It is this localization that leads to the illusion of personal identity and separateness. Moreover, it is your body-brain system that is in consciousness, not consciousness in your body-brain system. Think of reality as a collective dream: in a dream, it is your dream character that is in your consciousness, not your consciousness in your dream character. This becomes obvious when you wake up, but isn’t at all obvious while you are dreaming. Furthermore, the body-brain system is the image of that process of localization in the stream of consciousness, like a whirlpool is the image of a process of localization in a stream of water. For exactly the same reason that a whirlpool doesn’t generate water, your brain doesn’t generate consciousness.
Whirlpools, schmirlpools! Throughout the article Kastrup implies that there is no reality independent of consciousness: a view shared by one Deepak Chopra. That, of course, is untenable, as there is plenty of evidence about what was going on in the Universe before consciousness evolved. But of course you can further argue that our notion of what happened before brains existed is a construction of those brains; but I don’t think that anybody who is science-friendly wants to go that route.
Kastrup has it backwards. In fact, for exactly the same reason that water generates a whirlpool under certain physical conditions, the brain generates consciousness. It’s the laws of physics, Jake!
2. Science and its methods can’t penetrate consciousness, and have no way of separating our perception of the world from the world itself. Here we get the old trope: you can study neurons and hormones, and see what correlates with love, but that will never tell you what it actually feels like to be in love.
Perhaps that’s true, but what is not true is that the phenomenon of consciousness—of qualia—is forever beyond scientific understanding. That is the “hard problem” of consciousness. As Kastrup says,
For example: a neuroscientist might put a volunteer in a functional brain scanner (fMRI) and measure the patterns of his brain activity while the volunteer watches pictures of his loved ones. The neuroscientist would have precise measurements showing a pattern of activity in the volunteer’s brain, which could be printed out on slides and shared with the volunteer himself. The patterns on those slides would represent what the volunteer’s first-person experience of love looks like from the outside. In other words, they would be the image of subjective processes in the volunteer’s personal consciousness; the footprints of love. But if the neuroscientist were to point at the slides and tell the volunteer: “this is what you felt when you looked at the pictures of your loves ones,” the volunteer would vehemently, and correctly, deny the assertion. The first-person experience of love doesn’t feel at all like watching neurons activate, or ‘fire.’ You see, the image correlates with the process and carries valid information about it — like footprints correlate with the gait and carry valid information about it — but it isn’t the process, for exactly the same reason that footprints aren’t the gait. Looking at patterns of brain activity certainly feels very different from feeling love.
Yes, it does, but if you can understand how consciousness arises from patterns of brain activity, you’ve gone a long way toward understanding it. But even if we can’t do that easily, what does this have to do with God?
And that leads to Kastrup’s conclusion:
3. Just like the brain scans we see empirically—the ones associated with consciousness—say nothing about what it’s like to be conscious, so the empirical universe we see around us is a reflection of a higher consciousness: God’s consciousness, which is equally unfathomable. Ergo God. Theology is an attempt to plumb God’s consciousness.
If you think I’m kidding, here are Kastrup’s words. Bear with me, for he writes in theobabble:
As our personal psyches are like whirlpools in a broader stream, so the broader stream itself is an impersonal form of consciousness that underlies all reality. Aldous Huxley ably called it ‘mind-at-large,’ a term that I will adopt from this point on. Now, for the same reason that the experiences of another person appear to us as a seemingly objective image — namely, an active brain — the seemingly objective world around us is the image of conscious experiences in mind-at-large. Moreover, for exactly the same reason that feeling love is completely different than watching the brain activity of someone in love, the first-person experience of mind-at-large will feel completely different than your watching the world around you right now. The world is the image of conscious experiences in mind-at-large, but mind-at-large doesn’t experience the world the way we do, for the same reason that our volunteer inside the brain scanner doesn’t experience patterns of firing neurons! The volunteer experiences love, not firing neurons. When we look at the world around us, we do see the footprints of conscious experience, but not the gait. And this is why theology not only has a concrete and worthy subject of study and speculation, but perhaps the ultimate one.
. . .Thus, theology does have a very concrete subject: mind-at-large, or ‘God.’ And theology also has concrete data to make inferences about this subject: nature itself. After all, nature — from atoms to galaxy clusters — is an image of God’s mental activity, just like a brain scan is an image of a person’s subjective experiences.
. . . theology is an attempt to see past the mere images and make inferences about the subjective processes behind those images, which include emotions and intentionality; it is an attempt to see past the ‘brain scan’ and infer how it ‘feels to feel’ love in a direct way; it is an attempt to see past the footprints and understand where the hiker wants to go, as well as why he wants to go there. In this sense, theology and the natural sciences are entirely complementary.
In conclusion, both nature itself and religious texts are expressions of a mysterious divine perspective and, as such, valid sources of concrete data for theological study. Theology has a clear, concrete subject, as well as a clear and concrete challenge: to decode the divine mystery behind the images (both ‘unconscious’ and empirical) that we can ordinarily access during life. Coyne is simply wrong. While the natural sciences attempt to model and predict the patterns and regularities of nature, theology attempts to interpret those patterns and regularities so to make some sense of their first-person perspective; that is, God’s perspective.
This is an Argument for God From The Matrix: the Universe is the reflection of God’s consciousness, which we see through a glass darkly.
But this seems to me to be an argument based on a false analogy, and the syllogism fails at point #3. The problems are twofold. (I’m not mentioning the problems that the universe preceded the evolution of consciousness of its creatures, and that we can make and test hypotheses about what it was like. The fact that some of those hypotheses are verified tells us that there was a universe before we knew of it, and it had properties that were independent of our consciousness.)
First, when there is a human being who says she is conscious, we know that that that human exists and is saying those words. We don’t know the same about God, whirlpools or not. In other words, the existence of a Universe says nothing about either human or divine consciousness. While we can perceive other humans, there is no similar evidence for God. But at least we know that our view of reality is filtered through senses that have evolved (largely to represent reality!), and in real, demonstrable entities. Where is Kastrup’s evidence for the entity that is God?
Second, we can study consciousness in humans (and perhaps other creatures) through science. That is, we can show what is required for consciousness, how to remove it, where it resides in the brain, how to change its nature, and so on. We can make hypotheses and test them.
In contrast, Kastrup is stuck not only with having to sneak in God via a false analogy, but then with his claim that theology has valid methods for understanding God’s “consciousness” though his creation. That’s Natural Theology, a discipline that became obsolete with Darwin, though it has had a revival of sorts with arguments about “fine tuning” and “The Moral Law”.
But we all know that theology has no verifiable methods for inferring anything about God from his creation, except that He’s either malicious, indifferent, or a bungler. Kastrup, however, insists that certain properties of God can be discerned from the Universe:
The term, although admittedly old-fashioned and highly ambiguous, was and remains appropriate: if all reality consists of ripples (that is, inanimate objects and phenomena) and whirlpools (that is, living creatures) in the stream of mind-at-large, then the attributes ‘omnipresent,’ ‘omniscient,’ and ‘omnipotent’ apply to the stream for obvious reasons.
It’s not so obvious to me that these attributes—particularly “omnipotence”—would apply to even a Universal Consciousness. You can see here that Kastrup, desperate to prove his god, is simply making stuff up: throwing out words without considering whether they fit into a logical framework.
And he tries to anticipate the objection I’ll raise to his argument:
Coyne could counter this by saying that we already have the natural sciences for studying nature, and that the scientific method is much better suited for this purpose. This is as strictly correct as it misses the point: theology is an attempt to see past the mere images and make inferences about the subjective processes behind those images, which include emotions and intentionality. . .
He says it again, too, trying desperately to turn theology into a kind of science:
. . . theology attempts to interpret those patterns and regularities so to make some sense of their first-person perspective; that is, God’s perspective.
The key word here is “attempt.” Yes, theology tries to find out about God from nature. The problem is that it can’t find out squat, because its methods don’t allow the discernment of truth. That is why, of course, the gazillion different religions on this planet have come to different conclusions about “God’s perspective.” Does God like gays or hate them? Does He want women to be veiled or not? Is he affected by the world, as process theology claims, or is He completely unmoved by what happens on Earth? And how many Gods are there: how does Kastrup know that the Hindus are wrong and there’s only one God?
He doesn’t. He doesn’t know anything about God. And that’s because he has no good evidence that there is a God (the existence of “nature,” of course, is not evidence). Without a tangible object to study, you can’t say anything about it.
Kastrup’s argument fails miserably, I think, though it’s not for want of trying. It’s because, like all such arguments, it’s motivated less by logic than by wish-thinking. The man starts with his conclusion—God exists—and then retrofits the arguments to “demonstrate” that. Like all theology, it’s philosophical creationism. As Voltaire said,
De plus, l’intérêt que j’ai à croire une chose n’est pas une preuve de l’existence de cette chose.
or, in English:
The interest I have in believing in something is not a proof that the something exists.
Kastrup has a deep interest in believing in God, and his “proof” is simply pulled out of thin air.
His readers’ comments are often funny, and Kastrup wades into the fray and argues with his commenters:
Sadly, I was unable to ignore this flea, as I had an attack of Maru’s Syndrome. But I won’t fight with Kastrup here; if he wants to reply, he has his own website.