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LATEST DIALOGUES The linguistic con game of the ‘mind/matter duality’

Parallel Worlds

‘Parallel Worlds,’ by Selene’s Art. Copyright by Selene’s Art

I have recently been accused of proposing a metaphysics that simply replaces one form of reductionism with another: instead of reducing everything to matter, I allegedly ‘reduce’ everything to mind, the supposed polar opposite of matter. Underlying this accusation is the notion that ‘mind’ and ‘matter’ are dual concepts or polar opposites at the same level of abstraction, so that a reduction to either of them is seen as equally abstract. The suggestion is that there is a higher, truer, more enlightened point-of-view that precedes both mind and matter ontologically, and from which we can contemplate both mind and matter as a lower-level duality or polarity. As such, I allegedly fail to bring us any closer to that ‘higher point-of-view,’ instead replacing one abstraction with another.

If this is what you think, you’ve fallen for a linguistic con game; one that, unfortunately, plagues most of our culture. Mind and matter are not a true duality; and they aren’t polar opposites. Since the time of Aristotle we’ve known that we must be careful about identifying true contradictory pairs, lest we incur in major logical errors. A very similar rationale applies here. Mind is not at the same level of abstraction as matter. As a matter of fact, mind is not an abstraction at all. Only matter is.

Before we continue, let me state precisely what I mean by ‘mind.’ I use the word ‘mind’ in exactly the same way that I use the word ‘consciousness’: mind/consciousness is that whose excitations are subjective experiences. Whatever mind/consciousness may intrinsically be, its patterns of excitation are our subjective experiences, which in turn are our entire reality. My use of this definition is not an attempt to be peculiar: it’s simply a recognition that there is no universally-accepted definition of mind and consciousness out there, so I have to be precise regarding what I mean. From this point on, I will use only the word ‘mind.’

Since all we can ever know are our subjective experiences, matter – as something that supposedly exists outside all experience – is an abstraction of and in mind. We infer that matter exists outside mind, but even that inference is an experience that arises and exists within mind. Mind is what exists before we start theorizing, abstracting, or conceptualizing anything, including the very notions of reduction, duality and polarity. When one states that mind and matter form a duality, or a polarity, the statement itself arises and exists in one’s mind as a subjective experience. One cannot step out of one’s own mind and look upon it as a mere abstraction. Where would one be ‘looking from’ if not from one’s own mind? Do you see what I mean?

All of our abstractions arise from and within our mind, the ground of our being. Therefore, it is obviously a fallacy to say that matter and mind are dual concepts or polar opposites. Matter is an abstraction of mind. We can never transcend mind so to see it as a member of a lower-level dual pair, for mind – whatever it may intrinsically be – is what we are before we begin conceptualizing reality. To say that mind and matter form a polarity is like saying that ripples are the polar opposite of the water where they ripple. It makes no sense. Polarities are valid only between different kinds of ripples – say, ripples that flow to the right versus ripples that flow to the left – not between ripples and the medium where they ripple. And since mind is the ‘medium’ of the experiences we call matter, there cannot be a duality between matter – ‘ripples’ of mind – and mind either. Matter isn’t independent of mind.

The illusion of a duality or a polarity between mind and matter arises purely from language. It’s a linguistic con game. In order to speak of the very ‘medium’ of subjective experience, we must give it a name. We call it ‘mind,’ or ‘consciousness.’ Then, in order to speak of certain specific patterns of excitation of this ‘medium,’ we also give them names, like ‘matter.’ Finally, we lose ourselves in our own linguistic abstractions and end up thinking of ‘mind’ and ‘matter’ as polar opposites. We delude ourselves into believing that we, the agents conceiving of polarities and dualities, are somehow different from ‘mind;’ that we can look at mind from the outside. We can’t. Mind is what we are. It refers to our identity, not to one of our abstractions. It’s the ‘medium’ of experience, not a type of experience.

When people implicitly assume that somehow there is a ‘higher point-of-view’ from which to contemplate the alleged mind/matter duality or polarity, they are abstracting away from their own nature. You are mind and you can’t step away from what you are in order to see a true mind/matter duality/polarity. There is no such ‘higher point-of-view,’ just linguistic confusion that gets us lost in the forest of our own conceptual abstractions. When I say that all reality is patterns of excitations of mind, I am not ‘reducing’ the universe to an abstract concept – such as matter – but simply acknowledging the very ground of being.

Closing remark: in non-duality circles, the word ‘mind’ is usually taken to mean ‘thoughts’ or ‘intellect.’ As such, one could say that reducing reality to ‘mind,’ in this particular sense, amounts to reducing reality to intellectual conceptualizations. This, indeed, is just as bad as reducing reality to matter, which is itself an abstract concept. So please remember that, above, as well as in all my work, I use the word ‘mind’ as a synonym for what in non-duality circles is called ‘consciousness.’ This is more consistent with the terminology of Western philosophy.

This article was originally published here.

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Bernardo Kastrup has a Ph.D. in computer engineering with specializations in artificial intelligence and reconfigurable computing. He 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). Bernardo has authored many academic papers and books on philosophy and science. His most recent book is "The Idea of the World: A multi-disciplinary argument for the mental nature of reality," based on rigorous analytic argument and empirical evidence. For more information, freely downloadable papers, videos, etc., please visit www.bernardokastrup.com.
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23 Responses to “The linguistic con game of the ‘mind/matter duality’”

  1. June 12, 2015 at 6:30 am, David Storoy said:

    Some Vedanta teachers avoid using the word Consciousness because there is alot of confusion created in the West about this. Why not call it Awareness(or Self) instead of Mind and Consciousness?:) What is your view on the word Awareness?

    • June 12, 2015 at 7:27 am, Bernardo Kastrup said:

      I won’t get into a discussion about semantics. I specify clearly what I mean by the words I choose. I am interested in discussing the ideas conveyed by the words, not the particular choice of words (as long as the meaning is clear, as is the case in this essay).

  2. June 12, 2015 at 6:40 am, David Storoy said:

    I respect your view Bernardo. But I think Eastern view of mind and consciousness – they distinguish it and do not say it is the same is very wise. Mind is about thoughts and intellect is very clear in Eastern traditions. I understand why you keep the Western philosophy view of it,but I think the problem is not in the Eastern traditions,but in the West. It is Western philosopy that creates confusion. I will never follow their view that mind and consciousness/Awareness/Self is the same. It is a very important discrimination about what is real and appearant real. And what is subject and object etc. So Western philosophy is also saying that Self is an illusion. We have to question the credibility of the Western Philosophy. I am very harsh to say that Western Philosophy do not know what they are talking about and they let ignorance lead their terminology about this issue mind/Consciousness and Self. It is a game that Western philosophy is loosing their credibility. Why follow something that is not trustworthy or lack credibility to talk about what reality is really about? Okay, I am very strict and harsh. But I am living in Western world and I am very blunt about it. I respect whatever you do 🙂

    • June 12, 2015 at 7:26 am, Bernardo Kastrup said:

      David, let’s not get caught in semantics. These are just words. So long as we clearly specify what we mean by them, the real discussion is about the ideas conveyed, not the particular, idiosyncratic choices of words different people make. I happen to NOT call thoughts/intellect ‘mind,’ because this is not the meaning of the word ‘mind’ in Western philosophy. It’s just a choice. Yet, the distinction between thoughts/intellect and consciousness itself is clear and I accept it. What matters is that when I use the word ‘mind’ I MEAN what you understand by the word consciousness. That’s all. The important thing is the substance of the argument about not there being a true polarity between ‘consciousness’ and matter.

  3. June 12, 2015 at 6:46 am, David Storoy said:

    For instance in Vedic scriptures say that subtle body(including mind,intellect and ego) is inert. And it is reflected/projected consciousness/Awareness/Self.

    This mandala chart of Self/Awareness/Consciousness in Vedanta teachings – distinguish it from mind:

    http://www.shiningworld.com/site/index.php/community/gallery/charts

    • June 12, 2015 at 7:28 am, Bernardo Kastrup said:

      I prefer to discuss the substance of the message I am trying to convey, as opposed to the particular choice of words, as long as the meaning of the words is clear. I believe the meaning is clear in this case, for I made explicit effort to clarify it in the essay.

      • June 12, 2015 at 7:33 am, David Storoy said:

        “This is more consistent with the terminology of Western philosophy.”

        As I mentioned on your facebook-page. I will come back with a thorough article about this. I will talk about why West is creating the confusion about the issue of definition of mind and consciousness.Thanks for inspiring me to create this article btw.

  4. June 12, 2015 at 1:06 pm, Mit Jones said:

    An interesting point of view but you lost me @ ” Mind is what we are” . Mind as we know it could not have existed before language. You are not your mind.

    • June 12, 2015 at 1:25 pm, Bernardo Kastrup said:

      Please don’t forget to read the last paragraph… I use the word ‘mind’ in the traditional sense of Western philosophy, which is closest to how the word ‘consciousness’ is used in neo advaita. The __intellect__ indeed doesn’t exist without a universal grammar (which you call language), but consciousness does. You are consciousness/mind.

      • June 16, 2015 at 2:33 pm, Mit Jones said:

        I have read the last paragraph, you state,

        “I use the word ‘mind’ as a synonym for what in non-duality circles is called ‘consciousness.’ This is more consistent with the terminology of Western philosophy.”

        I don’t get the impression that non-duality circles refer to mind as consciousness or that it is inherent in western philosophy. Each of these words point to something very different they are not the same. You are not your mind, you are consciousness.

        If you can imagine your computer screen as being consciousness, your mind will be a pixel somewhere on the screen.

        • June 16, 2015 at 3:39 pm, Bernardo Kastrup said:

          I don’t know how I can possibly be clearer. The word “mind” in Western philosophy refers to more than thoughts or intellect alone. When, in Western philosophy, one talks of the “mind-body problem,” one actually means the hard problem of _consciousness_. I use the word “mind” in this Western sense, which would be equivalent to the use of the word “consciousness” in non-duality circles. If you find this difficult, please replace the word “mind” with the word “consciousness” when you read my essay, and its meaning should be clear.

          • June 16, 2015 at 10:02 pm, Mit Jones said:

            What you are saying is clear enough, It is your primary assumption that western philosophy and non-duality circles equate “mind to consciousness that i find lacking in foundation.

            It is a pretty broad bush you are using, perhaps you could narrow it down to which philosophers and which circles you are referring to.

          • June 17, 2015 at 5:29 am, Bernardo Kastrup said:

            I simply don’t make the alleged ‘primary assumption,’ as you will see if you carefully read again what I said. I’ll leave it at this because I am not that interested in discussing semantics.

  5. June 12, 2015 at 1:20 pm, John Sharman said:

    Enjoyed the read, Bernardo, though I’d have to say it does seem rather a long and roundabout way of simply saying that “all there is, is consciousness”…

    But it seems that knowing “all is consciousness” (or mind) might not make much difference, since in one sense, everything continues as it is, the play goes on… But at a deeper level, if all is mind, what does that mean in relation to the idea of “your” mind or “my” mind? And if there are only perceptions arising within mind, and the existence of matter can’t be demonstrated, what does that mean for the idea of a “you” and a “me” both as mind and as matter entities?

    • June 12, 2015 at 1:27 pm, Bernardo Kastrup said:

      These are all valid questions exploring the implications of all this. In this essay, I just wanted to highlight that the culturally-popular dichotomy between mind and matter is a farce.

  6. June 12, 2015 at 5:43 pm, Ben said:

    Bernardo,

    I’m consistently delighted by your ability to point to primordial mind via rigorous logic and well-reasoned argument. I really appreciate your engagement at this level, and I fully agree with what you wrote in another article about the intellect acting as a ‘gating mechanism’ for allowable experiences, and the need for the intellect to be opened up to new modes of construing in order for more direct experiences of reality to be available.

    Keep it coming!

  7. June 12, 2015 at 5:58 pm, tombunzel said:

    I have considered that perhaps as the Eskimos apparently have many words for snow we will eventually need a much more subtle terminology for mind or thought. I like Ken Wilber’s approach to what you point to in the final paragraph – a distinction between Big Mind and Little Mind.

    • June 12, 2015 at 6:26 pm, Bernardo Kastrup said:

      Certainly an important distinction

    • June 16, 2015 at 7:49 pm, oldestgeek said:

      Check WP on “Eskimo words for snow” Same as English but more constructs.

  8. June 19, 2015 at 10:42 pm, susanna eun said:

    A brilliant perspective! No one said what Mind is better than Buddha. He said One Mind Creates Everything, or to be more precise, all manifestations, be it physical or metaphysical, are merely the products of One Mind. This is the Big Mind Weber was referring to. We automatically assume that our minds must be the “small minds” since we can’t be the Big Mind that is eternal, omnipresent, and omniscient. I don’t want to get into semantics either, however, they are all same mind whether they are big, small, beautiful, or ugly. Once we assign words or values, we can’t help but getting into the world of intellect, which inevitably leads us to illusion, separation, duality, pain, etc. In other words, despite bad publicity our minds have gotten for millennia, our minds actually are the One Big Mind projected on individual human beings–only we are not aware of it. Although we tend to consider our minds as amalgamation of thoughts, feelings, and sensory perceptions, our minds do have innate capacities to expand and ascend far above thoughts, feelings, and knowledge, and transcend all known and unknown realities. When we get to the level, we awaken to our true nature as the prime creator or the One Big Mind, and understand our lives on this planet are a sort of excursion trip, regardless how ridiculously painful they seem to be at times.

  9. July 23, 2016 at 2:06 pm, IdPnSD said:

    “it’s simply a recognition that there is no universally-accepted definition of mind and consciousness out there,” – Samkhya Theory which is a part of Vedas, defines mind and soul clearly. Consciousness is only one of many properties of soul. A description of Samkhya Theory is given in the chapter named Soul Theory in the free book at https://theoryofsouls.wordpress.com/ Samkhya is mentioned in Gita also.

    According to Samkhya, as well as Bible, all objects of nature have following structure: (1) Soul (2) Subtle Body (3) Gross body. Subtle body has Intelligence, Mind, I-Principle, etc. Gross body dies. Soul stays with subtle body. Subtle body incarnates.

    “Mind is what exists before we start theorizing, abstracting, or conceptualizing anything,”

    What is the need for abstractions? Everything in the universe is real. If you acquire divine vision using yogic meditation, then you will see all the laws of nature using your own eyes of your mind and intelligence. Non-duality theory is not Vedic. Anything that is not acquired through divine vision is not Vedic. Most of the Upanishads will thus be non-Vedic.

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