Multiple personality disorder – a glimpse into the cosmos?

A recent post on got my attention – no surprise given its title, Could Multiple Personality Disorder Explain Life, the Universe, and Everything.  It was coauthored by three individuals: computer scientist Bernardo Kastrup, Psychotherapist Adam Crabtree, and cognitive scientist Edward F. Kelly.  The article’s major source is a paper written by Kastrup, published this year in the Journal of Consciousness Studies with the title The Universe is Consciousness.  I’ll try to outline here the gist of the argument.

It begins with a very convincing narrative substantiating the presence of multiple personalities in individuals who experience this.  One of the most remarkable was the case (reported in Germany in 2015) of a woman who had dissociated personalities, some of whom were blind.

The woman exhibited a variety of dissociated personalities (“alters”), some of which claimed to be blind. Using EEGs, the doctors were able to ascertain that the brain activity normally associated with sight wasn’t present while a blind alter was in control of the woman’s body, even though her eyes were open. Remarkably, when a sighted alter assumed control, the usual brain activity returned.

This was a compelling demonstration of the literally blinding power of extreme forms of dissociation, a condition in which the psyche gives rise to multiple, operationally separate centers of consciousness, each with its own private inner life.  (emphasis added)

The history of cases of dissociated personalities goes back to the late 1800s and the authors tell us that the literature provides significant evidence that “the human psyche is constantly active in producing personal units of perception” – what we would call selves.  While it continues to be unclear how this happens, they argue that the development of selves, or personal units of perception, should play a role in how we understand “what is and is not possible in nature.”

The case they make requires an appeal to alternative philosophical perspectives specifically physicalism, constituitive panpsychism, and cosmopsychism.  Proponents of physicalism believe that we should be able to understand mental states through a thorough analysis of brain processes.  The ongoing problem with this expectation is that there is still no way to connect feelings to different arrangements of physical stuff.  Constituitive panpsychism is the idea that what we call experience is inherent in every physical thing, even fundamental particles.  Human consciousness would somehow be built “by a combination of the subjective inner lives of the countless physical particles that make up our nervous system.”  But, the authors argue, the articulation of this perspective does not provide a way to understand how lower level points of view (atoms and molecules) would combine to produce higher level points of view (human experience).   The alternative would be that consciousness is fundamental in nature but not fragmented.  This is cosmopsychism which, the authors say, is essentially the classic idealism, where the objects of our experience depend on something more fundamental than particles, and that fundamental thing is more like mind or thought than matter.

The difficulty with this view is understanding how various private conscious centers (like you and everyone around you) emerge from a ‘universal consciousness.’   Keying on this question is what makes the presence of multiple personalities in one individual a useful indicator of how to think about this larger question.

Kastrup’s paper, on which this very readable Scientific American article is based, is steeped in the language of philosophy.  He works to unpack the mainstream physicalist perspective and why it doesn’t work, and then he examines a number of panpsychism views and their weaknesses.  For his own aragument, he relies most heavily on a proposal from philosopher Itay Shani.

Shani does still postulate a duality in cosmic consciousness to account for the clear qualitative differences between the outer world we, as relative subjects, perceive and measure and the inner world of our thoughts and feelings. He calls it the ‘lateral duality principle’ (Shani 2015, p412) and describes it thus:

[Cosmic consciousness] exemplifies a dual nature: it has a concealed (or enfolded, or implicit) side to its being, as well as a revealed (or unfolded, or explicit) side; the former is an intrinsic dynamic domain of creative activity, while the latter is identified as the outer, observable expression of that activity. (ibid., original emphasis)

Kastrup’s thinking is in line with Shani’s, but he goes to great lengths to examine the weaknesses in Shani’s view.  For the remainder of the paper, Kastrup focuses on addressing the following questions: how do fleeting experiential qualities arise out of “one enduring cosmic consciousness,”  what causes individual experiences to be private,  how can the physical world we measure be explained in terms of a concealed, thoughtful, order, why does brain function correlate so well with our awareness if it doesn’t generate it, and finally, why are we all imagining the same world outside the control of our personal volition.

Kastrup’s analysis of these questions is thorough and precise, and he uses the phenomenon of dissociated personalities which he calls alters) to address the privacy of individual experiences (since the alters within one individual are nonetheless private from each other) and the functional brain scans, that distinguish actual alters from ones that are just acted out, to imagine how each of us is the result of a “cosmic level dissociative processes.”

These are difficult ideas to accept given what we have come to expect from the sciences.  But I will point out that aspects of these proposals run parallel to ones proposed by contemporary neuroscientists and physicists.  The intimate connection between physics and mathematics always raises questions about the relatedness of mind and matter. For 17th century mathematician and philosopher Gottfried Wilhelm Liebniz, the fundamental substance of the universe could not be material. It had to be something undividable, something resembling a mathematical point more than a speck of dust. The material in our experience is then somehow a consequence of the relations among these non-material substances that actually resemble ‘mind’ more than ‘matter.’  For physicist and author David Deutsch, information and knowledge are the fundamentals of physical life. In his book, The Beginning of Infinity, Deutsch compares and contrasts human brains and DNA molecules. “Among other things,” he says, they are each “general- purpose information-storage media….” And so Deutsch sees biological information and explanatory information each as instances of knowledge which, he says, “is very unlikely to come into existence other than through the error-correcting process of evolution or thought.  The Integrated Information Theory of Consciousness proposed by neuroscientist Giulio Tononi, and defended by neuroscientist Christof Koch, suggests that some degree of consciousness is an intrinsic fundamental property of every physical system.  Also, cosmologist and author Max Tegmark is of the opinion that if we want to understand all of nature we have to consider all of it together.  For Tegmark there are three pieces to every puzzle – the thing being observed; the environment of the thing being observed (where there may be some interaction); and the observer.  He identifies three realities in his book Our Mathematical Universe – external reality, consensus reality, and internal reality.   External reality is the physical world which we believe would exist even if we didn’t (and is described in physics mathematically).  Consensus reality is the shared description of the physical world that self-aware observers agree on (and it includes classical physics). Internal reality is the way you subjectively perceive the external reality.  As with many ideas in physics, the universe is understood in terms of information, and Tegmark has said that he thinks that consciousness is the way information ‘feels’ when processed in complex ways.

It seems to me that a similar insight into what we have been overlooking, about ourselves and our world, is being approached from several directions and in languages specific to individual disciplines.  The ones proposed by physicists and neuroscientists are held together with mathematics.  But they all bring to mind again, something I thought when I watched my mother’s mind change with the development of a tumor in the right frontal lobe of her brain.  Among the many things I questioned was how it is that the cells in her body could produce her experience if something like consciousness or thought did not already in the world that created her.








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