A‘Brief Peeks Beyond: Critical Essays on Metaphysics, Neuroscience, Free Will, Skepticism and Culture’ by Bernardo Kastrup. A Review for Amazon.

I greatly enjoyed this book and would happily recommend it to anyone capable of reading it. It deals with issues that could not be more important or urgent. They are addressed in a straightforward way without any unnecessary intellectual basket-weaving. This is what rational philosophy might look like if more scientists got involved. Simple and clear, honest, logically sound and bang in line with the data.

For a committed materialist it will be an uncomfortable book since it is intended as a cure. For a person who finds materialism plausible, or who respects the current scientific-philosophical orthodoxy on the assumption that it is probably well-considered, yet at the same time desperately hopes that materialism is not true on the grounds that the universe would be meaningless and life would be pointless, it will be a very encouraging book. Properly considered, it turns out that science and philosophy is on your side.

For a committed theist adhering to an ‘exoteric’ or literal interpretation of the scriptures the book may seem a mixed blessing. Sentient beings become whirlpools in an ocean of consciousness, ‘centres of experience’ adrift in a psycho-physical causal matrix of their own making. If monotheism seems implied it would be something like the subtle and metaphorical theism of A Course in Miracles and the Nag Hammadi Library, the Kabbalah, the writings of Rumi, Al-Halaj and the Sufis, something a lot more like Taoism and Buddhism that our Church would usually countenance. Nevertheless, it lends credence to religion.

This ocean of consciousness is termed ‘Mind at Large’ in honour of Aldous Huxley. For readers who endorse ‘nondualism’ as a world-view and philosophical position it may be with this ‘Mind at Large’ that a few issues arise. Is this a fundamental or emergent phenomenon? If it is emergent then the author’s ‘monistic idealism’ would be non-reductive. Not necessarily wrong but not quite the whole story. Yet if it is fundamental then we would have to justify the use of the term ‘Mind’ in the absence of space-time and entirely ‘beyond the categories’ and thus, it would seem, beyond all possibility of thought.

Perhaps this is what is so clever about the book, that it takes us all the way to the penultimate metaphysical step but does not hopelessly confuse the issues by trying to go all the way. To go all the way would mean descending into the weird and wonderful language of the mystics, and to do this would be utterly counter-productive to the authors’ cause. The first task would to de-reify matter and acknowledge the ontological priority of consciousness.

The ambiguity that slightly clouds the ontological status of ‘Mind at Large’ seems unimportant everywhere except during the discussion of freewill. Here the author states, in italics, that this phenomenon ‘certainly has metaphysical freewill’. It is even said that this phenomenon has wants and desires. And yet it is also said that the intentions and actions (or perhaps the ‘unfolding’) of this phenomenon would be entirely the consequence of what it is. It is what it is so it can only act as it acts, want as it wants and so forth. This is the view that Lao Tsu endorses when he tells us that the laws of Heaven and Earth are as they are ‘Tao being what it is’, and perhaps it is also the Christian doctrine of ‘Divine Simplicity’. Yet this identity of action, attribute and being would not be consistent with freewill, and if ‘Mind at Large’ is to be equated with Tao and fundamental simplicity then we cannot claim freewill for it. For this reason we might prefer the solution given in A Course in Miracles, where it is stated ‘Choice is meaningless’.

Fortunately there would be a way to reconcile these two seemingly different statements on freewill. This would be to assume that the phrase ‘metaphysical freewill’ is meaningless. It is a notoriously difficult phrase to define and the whole idea seems to slip through our fingers when we try to do so. Perhaps this is because it does not make sense. If we take this approach then there would be no necessary disagreement between the two statements.

This reader had just one more quibble. The author suggests, ‘…all conceivable structures and functions of conscious beings can, in principle and under materialistic assumptions, be achieved without consciousness.’ A thought experiment is provided to illustrate this. Perhaps some readers will be convinced. For myself I have never been able to understand this view and it seems to be blatantly ridiculous. I refuse to believe that it would ever occur to a non-conscious being to write a book about consciousness, and it would certainly not be an achievable goal. This naïve objection, however, in no way weakens the more general argument being made.

It was genuinely cheering to read a short discussion of materialism in relation to animal welfare. The vast suffering of the animal kingdom caused by human activity is made possible by a lack of compassion dependent on a complete failure of empathy and an unsystematic philosophical view that denies any meaning to life and bestows power with no understanding. Seen in this way materialism is a sickness, not merely a logically indefensible conjecture in science and philosophy but a self-serving abdication of intellectual rigour and ethical responsibility that benefits nobody and least of all the believer.

The discussion of culture and society was a highlight and seemed to me to be the heart of the book. As a strong advocate of the power of logic it was also good to read a sound defence of discursive philosophy as compared with ‘revealed’ or direct knowledge. In mysticism the experimentalists do the real work and they can be a bit snooty about philosophy. These two approaches to knowledge are presented as complementary and mutually beneficial, albeit that in cases of perceived disagreement the latter would trump the former

Many people will enjoy this book and perhaps many will be heartened by it. With a cautionary (and probably rather churlish) word regarding the occasional variance between this description of the world and that given in the nondual literature of mysticism, it seems an ideal recommendation for anyone who either doubts or hopes that there is some truth in religion or who feels oppressed by the idea that they are merely mortal beings and can never be more.


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