An Idealist Understanding of Consciousness

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This is primarily a response to a recent article on Medium by the philosopher Paul Austin Murphy, although the ideas may be of interest to others. He has taken against the idealist philosopher Bernardo Kastrup; he has devoted five articles to criticising him in recent weeks. (He says that the latest one is the last.) I found all this material interesting as I am a fan of Kastrup — I have actually written .

I’m not sure if Murphy has a term to describe his precise philosophical position, but he has told me that he believes that the brain is responsible for consciousness, which is a statement typical of a physicalist/materialist. I assume therefore that he is something close to that, and that in his series he is perhaps criticising Idealism in general.

It is tempting to write a response to Murphy’s whole series, but I don’t have time for that at the moment. However, there was one section in the which attracted my attention. He quotes Medium writer Gerald R. Baron’s assessment of Idealism: “In these versions consciousness is a universal substrate underlying all reality including the physical world. Some hold that what appears to us as solid matter is actually an illusion and only experience is real (idealism)”. He then asks these questions:

  • if everything is consciousness, then how can consciousness also be a ‘substrate’?
  • if consciousness is a substrate, then what is it a substrate of?
  • is consciousness a substrate for something that isn’t itself consciousness?
  • is consciousness a substrate for consciousness? (Does that even make sense?)

My purpose here is to try to answer these questions. I mean by this that I’ll offer an idealist understanding; I don’t expect to say anything that will persuade Murphy of their truth.

According to Idealism, nothing exists except consciousness or, put another way, everything that exists is a form or manifestation of consciousness. In his book The Secret History of the World¹, Jonathan Black outlines the idealist worldview of esoteric secret societies. This is how he describes this process of manifestation.

He makes the typical idealist statements that “everything in this universe is alive and conscious to some degree…” (p34), and that “many of the world’s most brilliant individuals… have envisaged an impulse squeezing out of another dimension into this one — and they have conceived of this other dimension as the mind of God” (p30).

He then elaborates:

  • “From the priests of the Egyptian temples to today’s secret societies, from Pythagoras to Rudolf Steiner… this model has always been conceived of as a series of thoughts emanating from the cosmic mind. Pure mind to begin with, these thought-emanations later became a sort of proto-matter, energy that became increasingly dense, then became matter so ethereal that it was finer than gas, without particles of any kind. Eventually the emanations became gas, then liquid and finally solids”.
  • “Emanations from the cosmic mind should be understood in the same way, as working downwards in a hierarchy from the higher and more powerful and pervasive principles to the narrower and more particular, each level creating and directing the one below it”.
  • “At the lowest level of the hierarchy… these emanations… interweave so tightly that they create the appearance of solid matter”. (Extracts from pages 37–40)

It’s worth noting that the first of these quotes has some affinity with Genesis chapter 1, where God creates and separates higher and lower waters, and where the material universe emerges from the lower waters (thus different levels of increasing density). Also, there are some similarities between these ideas and those of some quantum physicists. It can therefore be argued that this viewpoint is in accord with modern science or, at the very least, the worldview of some modern scientists — examples would be Erwin Schrödinger, Sir James Jeans, Max Planck, Fred Alan Wolf, David Bohm etc.

In various spiritual traditions we find more detailed accounts of this process, where the universe and human beings are conceived as existing in a hierarchy of different levels, usually numbered at seven. Here I’ll describe two versions of such systems.

The first is that of the late Raynor C. Johnson whom I consider to be an authority on spiritual matters. (If you would like to understand the strange background story which led me to do so, and more details about him, click .) He is eclectic, and seems to be unattached, not obviously a follower of any particular tradition, but has a deep understanding of them. Here is his account of the nature of a human being, taken from his book The Spiritual Path² (all quotes, chapter 2).

He says that there are at least six levels, plus a seventh level of spirit which he places above human nature. These are soul “which is of the nature of spiritual reality”, the “immortal element”, and a “Being of Light”, and five bodies which clothe it: causal, mental, astral, etheric, and physical. Each of these bodies exists within a different level of reality, and “each body may be regarded as created by, or precipitated from, the one higher above it”. “Each level is therefore a partial reflection or imperfect representation of the level above it”:

  • the causal body “belongs to a level that inspires all the highest forms”
  • the mental body refers to “the many lower levels of mind”, “a busy telephone exchange on the middle floor of a three story building”
  • the astral body, which “is itself composed of many substrata or interpenetrating levels”, “to a considerable degree the expression of our emotional interests”
  • the etheric double, which is “interposed between the astral and physical bodies. It is not a functional body or vehicle, but it may best be regarded as a bridge between the physical and astral bodies. It is, however, sometimes called the vital body”. “During the life of the physical body, this etheric structure never wholly withdraws from it, but tries to maintain the health of the nervous system”
  • the physical body, which needs no explanation.

The second version is the understanding of the Theosophical Society, founded by Helena Blavatsky. The society offers a synthesis of Eastern and Western ideas, and describes a sevenfold constitution of a human being, where each of these principles (what Johnson calls bodies) is embodied in a person:

  • Spirit or Self, “pure consciousness, the cosmic self that is the same in everyone in the universe. It’s the feeling and knowledge of ‘I am’, pure cognition, or the abstract idea of self”
  • a Spiritual Soul principle — vehicle of pure universal spirit
  • a mind level, subdivided into the spiritual or higher Ego, and the lower or ordinary mind
  • emotion principle
  • the vital principle, “pulsating during the entire term of physical life”, “an indispensable factor of the living man”
  • the astral body, or double, “slightly more ethereal than the physical body”
  • the physical body.

Despite the slight differences in terminology and positioning in the hierarchy, the two systems are very similar in their understanding.

I hope that it is clear how such an understanding would answer Murphy’s questions, but I’ll spell it out. Consciousness can indeed be a substrate of consciousness, because this would be different levels of consciousness in the hierarchy. All levels are indeed consciousness, but one more dense level can be a substrate of a higher one. Yes, consciousness can be a substrate for consciousness.

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I hope you have enjoyed this article. I have written in the past about other topics, including spirituality, metaphysics, psychology, science, Christianity, politics and astrology. All of those articles are on Medium, but the simplest way to see a guide to them is to visit my website (click and ). My most recent articles, however, are only on Medium; for those please check out my profile.

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Footnotes:

  1. Quercus, 2010
  2. Hodder & Stoughton, 1972

Paul Austin Murphy

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