My writings, detailed on this website, explore intersections between mysticism, philosophy, and science.
They revolve around a number of interrelated themes:
– the search for a deep understanding of fundamental physics, based on the idea that the world is organized from a multiplicity of ‘viewpoints’
– an idealist philosophy that makes experience basic and matter derivative
– the study of mystical and related experiences that may shed light on big questions about reality, knowledge, self, time, meaning, ethics, life and death, …
‘Viewpoints’ on the Universe: An Alternative Metaphysics for Physics
Physics has carried with it some metaphysical assumptions about the nature of the world, notably the idea that it is basically ‘material’ or ‘physical’, consisting of bits of matter moving and colliding in space, or in more recent times, fundamental particles, radiation, energy, forces, fields, spacetime, wave functions, and the like. However, physics is currently incomplete and faces some major challenges, notably the reconciliation of general relativity and quantum theory. One approach to resolving the impasse has gained some traction in recent years: This is the idea that the basic ingredients of the world are not physical particles and fields but ‘viewpoints’ or ‘perspectives’.
Precisely how these viewpoints are understood varies from thinker to thinker. For example, physicist Lee Smolin hopes to develop a relational theory of physics centred on ‘events’, each event being a limited ‘view’ of the universe that consists of its relations to other events. Psychologist Donald D. Hoffman also hopes that fundamental physics can be derived from viewpoints. These he calls ‘conscious agents,’ a term that signals their experiential nature (an experientiality not explicitly attributed by Smolin to his neutrally termed ‘events’). And physicist and microelectronics innovator Federico Faggin regards physical entities as the outer aspect of ‘consciousness units’. The 20th-century philosopher Alfred North Whitehead (1861–1947) had speculated that the world consists of experiential perspectives or “actual occasions”, and his ideas continue to attract interest today. Smolin, Faggin, and Whitehead (and less clearly Hoffman) owe a debt to the philosopher Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz (1646–1716), who conjectured that the world consists of ‘monads’, indivisible unities characterized by perception and appetition (an inner tendency to change and act, which includes appetites, desires, and will).
For many years, I too have been pursuing a ‘viewpoint’ approach, keenly aware of its potential relevance to relativistic and quantum physics (and also to biological evolution). My philosophical outlook is particularly indebted to Leibniz, and I have developed his system in some novel ways. I first presented these ideas in The Living Mirror (1992) and most recently and comprehensively in The Shape of the Soul (2019). Because I take Leibniz as my metaphysical starting point, my thinking shares some common ground with Whitehead’s process philosophy, including its panpsychism, but I stay closer to Leibniz in important respects, for example, by maintaining that each basic viewpoint expresses the entire spacetime universe in its perceptions, not just circumscribed parts of the whole. My ‘perceptual agents,’ as they could be called, are actively transforming, mutually accommodated perceptions, embracing all times and places from their particular points of view. My hope is that fundamental physics may one day be derivable from such a metaphysics.
Consciousness is Fundamental
The idea that the world consists of ‘viewpoints’ has a natural affinity with the metaphysical position known as idealism or idealist monism, which takes consciousness or experience to be fundamental and matter derivative. The affinity is clearly evident in the speculations of Hoffman and Faggin, and Whitehead and the later Leibniz can be understood as idealists too, since they give primacy to experience, and their basic units – monads and actual occasions respectively – are mind-like, for they are perceptual, striving subjects. Idealism provides a solution to the mind–body problem, offering an alternative to physicalism, dualism, and other approaches. I have long argued for an idealist understanding of the relation between mind and matter.
Some idealists bundle everything into just a single ‘universal consciousness’ or ‘one mind’, but these monistic types of idealism are, I believe, less able to engage with the nature of matter and the peculiarities of modern physics. Pluralistic varieties, notably those that understand the world in terms of a multiplicity of distinct ‘viewpoints’, look to me to stand a greater chance of engaging effectively with physics and the nature of matter. Moreover, they have some support from a very different area of study – mystical experiences (see ‘Mind Beyond Brain: Surveying the Metaphysical Landscape’ in Consciousness Unbound).
An Expanded Empiricism: Mysticism and Parapsychology
My interest in idealist metaphysics and the ‘viewpoint’ approach to physics are informed by another endeavour—the study of certain ‘exceptional’ or ‘extraordinary’ experiences. The philosopher and psychologist William James argued long ago that science will be advanced by expanding the range of phenomena it takes into account, such as the ‘wild facts’ of mystical and parapsychological phenomena, the latter including psi (e.g., telepathy, precognition) and evidence for postmortem survival. Certainly, if the universe is fundamentally experiential, as I strongly suspect it is, and we are perceptual viewpoints on the universe, then there is a possibility that the world can be explored not just through the usual scientific methods of measurement, theory construction, and evaluation, but also through the study of profound experiences. These promise to contribute to a richer, deeper, more rounded picture of the world than quantitative science on its own can provide.
But is it realistic to suppose that certain experiences reveal the deeper nature of things? Many modern thinkers assume that the only route to knowledge of the world is through perceptual experience mediated by the sense organs, augmented by scientific observation, and interpreted by the rational mind. There is, however, an older view that reality can be accessed through an immediate, intuitive, nondiscursive way of knowing—Greek gnōsis, Indian jñāna—that reveals things as they are behind sensory-conceptual veils. This traditional view is supported by modern-day reports of mystical experiences that seem to bring deepened contact with and direct insight into reality, often with a powerful sense of unity.
Those who have these experiences tend to regard them as genuinely revelatory, while modern philosophers, with some exceptions, have given them little or no metaphysical or epistemological significance, and they have not turned to the study of mystical experience for metaphysical inspiration (see here). Nor have scientists generally supposed that mysticism has anything useful to contribute to investigation of the natural world. The experiences are commonly brushed aside as biological and psychological aberrations or products of religious indoctrination. However, these positions suffer from serious difficulties, as I have discussed in my writings on mystical experience, and there is a real possibility that mystical experiences do provide genuine insights into reality.
For philosophical thoughts on what the ‘universe as experience’ may be like, see my 2001 Journal of Consciousness Studies article.
For mystical perspectives on the experiential characteristics of the universe, see my various writings on mystical experience, including Mystical Encounters with the Natural World (2005) and The Shape of the Soul.
For an introductory article on mystical insights into the nature of reality, click here.
For mystical experience and psi as cognate phenomena, click here.