For those of us who have been dealing with philosophy, religion, metaphysics, and the meaning of life for a number of years and asking the proverbial questions: "Who am I?", "Why am I here?", "Where do I come from?", and Where am I going?", this book comes as a refreshing and valuable asset in trying to help us explain our concerns and our interests to others who are more scientific and logically minded.
I don't know about you, but I've found it almost impossible to broach these subjects with my left brain-oriented friends and relatives. More often than not, they simply don't want to hear what they term my "way out beliefs."
Bernardo Kastrup has done us all an important favour in approaching these issues from a strictly rational standpoint. With this book he has carefully and systematically investigated the answers to the universally important questions expressed above.
While many of us "know in our gut" there must be the profoundest of meaning and purpose to the existence of the human species, there are a multitude still clinging to the opinion that the universe in which we live is just an accident - a freak anomaly in space and time without any ultimate objective.
They acknowledge there is, indeed, a possible but an extremely small likelihood that all we experience is set up to have a direction and an end goal but that, statistically speaking, there is only the slimmest chance that what we see should even exist. And so they discount the idea that the cosmos, and all it contains, was consciously created.
What Kastrup has done is postulate that it is consciousness itself which is the causal factor. In a brilliant leap of courage and clarity, he takes us, step-by-step, through his logic, showing us that, unlike most mainstream religious thinking, existence is far from being perfect and complete.
"Completeness," he says, "is incompatible with movement, yet it is beyond doubt that the universe is dynamic; the universe is certainly `doing something', `going somewhere'... Therefore, at some level, in some way, the universe must not be complete." If it's not complete, then it must be attempting to enrich and complete itself by becoming more of itself - more conscious.
Kastrup begins by investigating the "unrealised potential of consciousness." Science, he says, cannot explain how subjective experience arises. However, as Descartes said, the only thing whose existence we can be absolutely certain of is our own consciousness. But, Kastrup asks, is consciousness "locked up" in our heads?
He then takes us into the scientific world of quantum mechanics to illustrate its theories as to how we see the world as it is. He contrasts in very clear fashion the "collapse" of Schrödinger's wave function (the "choice" of only one possible scenario out of a multitude) with Everett's "many worlds" parallel universe interpretation to explain the reality we experience. He chooses wave function collapse as the simplest, least complex, and most direct explanation.
But, says Kastrup, "...since no material reality manifests until after collapse takes place, it seems that whatever causes collapse must come from outside material reality. This is what led renowned mathematician John van (sic) Neumann, Nobel-laureate physicist Eugene Wigner, and many others, to postulate consciousness as the causal agency of wave function collapse.... (And, he adds) without conscious observation the entire universe would be just an amorphous, abstract realm of possibilities and potentials with no material reality."
"Such primacy of consciousness in grounding existence allows us to infer that a process of universal enrichment... should be a process of consciousness enrichment." All this is reasoned in the first 20 pages of the book. The other 90+ pages tell us the method of enriching consciousness.
Kastrup looks at the human brain as a consciousness "transceiver" (a term he coins as an amalgamation of "transmitter" and "receiver"). It receives consciousness from "outside" or "above" itself causally influencing its functioning. On the other hand, its transmitter function (what I would call feedback) sends information to consciousness outside itself, providing adjustment, modification, expansion, and enrichment.
He goes on to describe philosopher John Searle's "Chinese Room" thought experiment to illustrate the role of intelligence, showing us that true "understanding only exists in consciousness, not in intelligence." Intelligence is a mechanical function of the physical, computer-like brain, which is a "correlation-finding and associative-performing engine" that models with symbols inside itself the reality that may (or may not) exist outside itself.
Kastrup then uses information theory to show us that "the very imposition of limitations on consciousness through material structures is the vehicle for its expansion." While that seems at first glance contradictory, it is not. "In fact, a boundless consciousness would have been structurally unable to be aware of its own existence, or to know anything about itself."
By limiting, or "fragmenting" itself (as Kastrup describes it), homogeneous, unified, all pervasive consciousness can separate itself into information containing brains. "Only then could individualised consciousness be able to investigate and study the universe itself, thereby becoming progressively more aware of all its aspects."
Observing itself being aware of itself is the prerequisite for self-understanding, which, in turn, enriches the general consciousness within which we exist. And, this can only be accomplished by consciousness first breaking itself apart into individual pieces.
The separateness we experience of ourselves in relation to others, and to our material world in general, is really only an illusion provided by consciousness to progressively enrich and evolve itself. "Boundless consciousness could only conceive, understand, and become aware of itself if it could experience limitation."
Now, that puts the responsibility for the continual development of consciousness (or God, if you will) on each one of us. In other words, we must try each moment of our lives to remember that we are simultaneously both an illusion of fragmentation and a part of the reality of a boundless unity of consciousness.
It reminds me of Socrates' dictum "know thyself," but it must be, as Kastrup says, "continuous, uninterrupted, and permanent; it must never go away..." And, there is the challenge to us all for a self-disciplined, personalised method similar to what we read about in accounts of the "mystery schools" of the past, and perhaps, carried on by certain groups in the present.
In the final analysis, says Kastrup, "your body is not you; you are just its user." You use your body to gain a history of subjective experiences, and those experiences, as Nietzsche put it, may be played out over and over again in what he called eternal return.
In summary, and as the title of the book implies, "Rationality and the pursuit of spirituality do not need to be mutually-exclusive.... Indeed, rationality and logic may be fundamental tools to spirituality, for they allow us to make inferences about things that we may not (yet) be able to verify either objectively or subjectively."
- This review first appeared in New Dawn magazine issue #129