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Feb 27 18

Do Plants Have Goals?

by Bill Meacham

The topic this time is plants, specifically, whether plants have goals, as sentient agents do. Contemporary philosopher Scott Sehon, echoing the intuitions of many, says they don’t. I’m not so sure.

Sehon’s concern is the concept of teleology, the attempt to explain things in terms of goals or purposes. (The term comes from the Greek telos, which means an end, purpose or goal.) In trying to untangle the nuances of the concept he asks whether and to what extent any of the following can reasonably be said to have goals:(1)

  • A rock remains motionless on the ground.
  • A marble rolls down the inside of a bowl.
  • A heat-seeking missile turns toward the north.
  • A plant turns toward the sun.
  • A spider runs across its web.
  • A cat climbs up a tree.
  • A person, Jackie, goes to the kitchen.

We can explain Jackie’s action by saying that she goes to the kitchen to get a drink. Getting a drink is her goal, or intention. We do not explain the rock’s remaining motionless by saying that it does so in order to maintain a constant velocity. The rock has no goal, it just responds to external forces, which at the moment are in equilibrium. The other cases are in between. The marble does not roll down in order to get to the bottom; it just responds to gravity. The heat-seeking missile acts as if it has a goal, but its goal is not its own; rather, someone has programmed the goal into it. The spider runs across its web to get to the prey ensnared there, and the cat runs up the tree to get away from a dog. These two seem to be clear-cut cases of having a goal, much as Jackie has the goal of getting a drink. But what about the plant?

We can explain the plant’s action by saying it turns toward the sun to get the most sunlight. But Sehon objects, saying "we are not comfortable with [the] apparent suggestion that we view the plant as an agent aiming for a particular goal."(2) He views the plant’s movement as a mere tropism, mechanical and not agential.

Now, the first thing to note is that while Sehon himself is uncomfortable, it is not at all clear that everyone else is. My wife, a gardener and landscape designer, would have no problem at all with saying that the plant moves in order to get more sunlight. Philosophers often appeal to their intuitions about what words mean or what one would say in a certain situation, but their intuitions may well be biased.

Sehon is a philosopher, not a scientist, but his appeal to intuition is a type of informal research using himself and his peers as subjects. As such a researcher he is susceptible to a criticism of contemporary behavioral science, that it uses research subjects who are not representative of the human population world wide. A recent review of behavioral science research finds that "subjects are taken largely from Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, and Democratic (WEIRD) societies" and that "members of WEIRD societies, including young children, are among the least representative populations one could find for generalizing about humans."(3) Sehon himself, a philosophy professor in Maine, is firmly among the WEIRD,(4) so the fact that he has an intuition that plants don’t have goals does not carry much weight as evidence. What would an indigenous hunter-gather in Brazil have to say? How about a pastoral nomad in Mongolia? A farmer in Uzbekistan?

Be that as it may, it is undeniable that plants differ from animals in significant ways. (Or so it seems to me, also a WEIRD person.) Plants are less like us, who clearly have goals, than animals. To the untrained eye, it is clear that animals can do a number of things that plants can’t, most notably move around freely and perceive things at a distance.

But the untrained eye can be deceived. Aristotle, for instance, characterized plants as being able to grow and reproduce, but not to perceive, going so far as to say that they have no sense of touch.(5) Nowadays we know that plants do perceive, and some have quite an obvious sense of touch. For an example, watch this video of a Mimosa Pudica, aka Sensitive Plant, whose compound leaves fold inward and droop when touched:(6)

There are many other parallels between plants and animals. It has been known for over 25 years that plants, even though they lack an animal nervous system, send nerve-like messages through their bodies via electrical signals.(7) Newer research finds much more evidence that plants have features analogous to nervous systems and brains:(8)

  • Plants have genes that are similar to those that specify components of animal nervous systems.
  • These genes specify proteins that behave in ways very similar to neural molecules.
  • Some plants have synapse-like regions between cells, across which neurotransmitter molecules facilitate cell-to-cell communication.
  • Many plants have vascular systems that look like they could act as conduits for impulses transmitted throughout the plant body.
  • Some plant cells display action potentials, events in which the electrical polarity across the cell membrane does a quick, temporary reversal, as occurs in animal neural cells. The behaviors of the Sensitive Plant and the Venus Flytrap are examples.

So plants send nerve-like messages within themselves. Does that mean they are intelligent enough to have goals? Are they, in other words, agents? Consider some additional evidence. Monica Gagliano, an animal ecologist at the University of Western Australia, did an experiment with the aforementioned Mimosa Pudica, here recounted by science journalist Michael Pollan.

Gagliano potted fifty-six mimosa plants and rigged a system to drop them from a height of fifteen centimeters every five seconds. Each "training session" involved sixty drops. She reported that some of the mimosas started to reopen their leaves after just four, five, or six drops, as if they had concluded that the stimulus could be safely ignored. "By the end, they were completely open," Gagliano said to the audience. "They couldn’t care less anymore."

Was it just fatigue? Apparently not: when the plants were shaken, they again closed up. "’Oh, this is something new,’" Gagliano said, imagining these events from the plants’ point of view. "You see, you want to be attuned to something new coming in. Then we went back to the drops, and they didn’t respond." Gagliano reported that she retested her plants after a week and found that they continued to disregard the drop stimulus, indicating that they "remembered" what they had learned. Even after twenty-eight days, the lesson had not been forgotten.(9)

This experiment certainly suggests that plants learn and remember. But are they really agents, with intentions, goals, desires and the like? We think they just stand in place like so much green furniture, but that’s because they move too slowly for us to notice. Consider this video of a bean plant shot with time-lapse photography provided by researcher Stefano Mancuso:(10)

I wonder if you will agree that the plant’s activity seems to be directed rather than flailing around aimlessly. To me (admittedly a WEIRD observer) it certainly seems to have a goal and to make efforts toward that goal. Pollan says

Mancuso’s video seems to show that this bean plant "knows" exactly where the metal pole is long before it makes contact with it. Mancuso speculates that the plant could be employing a form of echolocation. There is some evidence that plants make low clicking sounds as their cells elongate; it’s possible that they can sense the reflection of those sound waves bouncing off the metal pole.

The bean plant wastes no time or energy "looking"—that is, growing—anywhere but in the direction of the pole. And it is striving (there is no other word for it) to get there: reaching, stretching, throwing itself over and over like a fly rod, extending itself a few more inches with every cast, as it attempts to wrap its curling tip around the pole. As soon as contact is made, the plant appears to relax; its clenched leaves begin to flutter mildly.(11)

In addition to cultural biases, we humans have a generic bias: we see things easily in our time scale but not at all or only with difficulty in other time scales. Our invention of time-lapse photography enables us to see features of the world that we normally overlook entirely. One of these features is the agential, goal-directed nature of plants.

There is quite a bit of controversy among botanists about what all this means. That’s why, out of caution, Pollan puts words such as "knows" and "looking" in scare quotes. Some have called for the creation of a whole new field, to be called "plant neurobiology" because plant signaling is so much like animal neural activity and because plant behavior is too sophisticated to be explained by genetic and biochemical mechanisms.(12) Some, less confrontationally, call the field "plant signaling and behavior."(13) Others strongly disagree, going so far as to say that plant neurobiologists are from "the nuthouse."(14) The issue is largely semantic, since nobody questions the data, but it strikes at the core of our concept of ourselves. Are humans a special category of the living, different enough to be considered distinct from other animals and especially from plants? Or are we one end of a continuum of life that ranges without sharp demarcations from tiny, single-celled bacteria to extraordinarily complex human beings?

My own preference is the latter. The view that we are part of a continuum of life seems to fit the data better than the opposite view. And if widely adopted, it might prompt us to have more empathy for our fellow living creatures and to stop the ecological devastation that threatens our survival.

(1) Sehon, p. 160.

(2) Sehon, p. 161

(3) Henrich, et. al., p. 61.


(5) Aristotle, On The Soul, 2, 413a 26 – 413b 13. To be fair, he does not explicitly say that no plants have a sense of touch, but implies that assertion by contrasting them with animals, all of which do.

(6) Íñiguez, “Mimosa pudica – Sensitive Plant.”

(7) Yoon, “Plants Found to Send Nerve-Like Messages.”

(8) DeSalle, “Do Plants Have Brains?”

(9) Pollan, “The Intelligent Plant.”

(10) Pollan. “Plant Neurobiology.”

(11) Pollan, “The Intelligent Plant.”

(12) Brenner, et. al., “Plant neurobiology.”

(13) Baluska, et. al., Plant Signaling and Behavior.

(14) Pollan, “The Intelligent Plant.”

Aristotle. On the Soul, tr. Terence Irwin and Gail Fine. In Readings in Ancient Greek Philosophy: From Thales to Aristotle, Fourth Edition ed. S. Marc Cohen, et. al. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, 2011. Another translation is available online at

Baluska, Frantisek, et. al., eds. Plant Signaling and Behavior. Online at as of 24 February 2018.

Brenner, Eric D., et. al. “Plant neurobiology: an integrated view of plant signaling.” Trends in Plant Science Vol. 11 No. 8 (2006), pp. 423-418. Online publication as of 24 February 2018.

DeSalle, Rob, and Ian Tattersall. “Do Plants Have Brains?” Natural History. Online publication as of 20 February 2018.

Henrich, Joseph, et. al. “The weirdest people in the world?” Behavioral and Brain Sciences, Vol. 33 (2010), pp. 61 – 135. Online publication as of 23 February 2018.

Íñiguez, Ángel Daniel Alfaro, videographer. “Mimosa pudica – Sensitive Plant.” (video) Online publication as of 20 February 2018.

Pollan, Michael. “Plant Neurobiology.” (video) Online publication as of 20 February 2018.

Pollan, Michael. “The Intelligent Plant: Scientists debate a new way of understanding flora.” The New Yorker, 23 December 2013. Online publication as of 15 February 2018. I highly recommend this piece. It has far more to say than what I have quoted.

Sehon, Scott. Teleological Realism: Mind, Agency, and Explanation, Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2005.

Yoon, Carol Kaesuk. “Plants Found to Send Nerve-Like Messages.” New York Times, 17 November 1992. Online publication as of 20 February 2018.

Nov 19 17

A Harmful Ambiguity

by Bill Meacham

Massimo Pigliucci has written an entertaining book, Answers For Aristotle, about how recent scientific discoveries can shed light on perennial problems of philosophy and how philosophy can make sense of surprising new knowledge. Drawing on neuroscience, psychology, evolutionary biology and other disciplines, he shows that we need both science and philosophy to make sense of who we are and how best to live our lives. Pigliucci is a skillful wrier, and the book is enjoyable and informative. But it has an annoying flaw: historical inaccuracy and conceptual confusion stemming from ambiguous language.

Pigliucci contrasts three approaches to deciding what to do in morally problematic situations. Deontology, from a Greek word meaning duty, tells us to follow moral rules because they tell us the right thing to do. Moral rules may be taken to come from divine decree or from the dictates of rationality or from a special faculty of intuition; but however we come to know them, they are to be followed regardless of their consequences. This principle is taken to the extreme by Kant, who asserts that it would be wrong to tell a lie to a murderer who asks whether our friend who is being pursued by the murderer has taken refuge in our house.(1) Most of us find such rigid honesty morally repugnant.

Consequentialism, by contrast, tells us that the consequences of our actions are of primary importance, regardless of the rules. Its best-known variant is Utilitarianism, which says that we should try to produce the greatest happiness for the greatest number of people. Consequentialism evaluates moral choices in terms of the consequences of our actions regardless of whether they are in accord with moral rules. Taken to the extreme, this approach would have us sacrifice one healthy man to harvest his organs for several others who need them. This too we find morally repugnant.

Both deontology and consequentialism, despite seeming differences, are actually quite similar. Both are in what I have called the Rightness paradigm, being ways to find the right thing to do.(2) The third approach, virtue ethics, is in the Goodness paradigm. It gives us advice about how to live a good life by cultivating morally laudable traits of character such as honesty, courage, moderation and the like. This approach does not tell us what to do in particular quandaries. Instead it tells us what kind of person to be such that we will do what is morally appropriate almost automatically. We will act because of who we are, not because we have figured out what to do by consulting a moral system. Virtue ethics originated in ancient Greece and found its fullest flowering in Aristotle. The point of cultivating virtues, according to that famous philosopher, is to be able to live a life of eudaimonia, that is, a life of happiness or, better, flourishing or fulfillment. It’s not just the feeling of being happy that is the goal, but really functioning well in all areas of life.

Now consider this statement by Pigliucci:

According to virtue ethics … human beings need to steer themselves in the direction of virtuous behavior both because that is the right thing to do and because the very point of life is to live it in a eudaimonic way.(3)

There are two different assertions here, and only one of them is historically accurate. Aristotle does indeed claim that, as a factual matter, human beings seek happiness (eudaimonia) above all else since “we always choose it because of itself, never because of something else.”(4) That is, we choose, for instance, health over illness because health makes us happier, but we choose happiness just for itself, not for any other reason. Aristotle goes on to claim that what makes us happy is the exercise of our distinctly human function, which is the ability to reason.(5) And not just to reason, but to reason well, that is, excellently. (The Greek word areté, often translated as “virtue,” also means excellence.) Life is activity, so the happy life is an active one that is governed by reasoning well: “The human good turns out to be the soul’s activity that expresses virtue.”(6) (Again, read “excellence” for “virtue”, and nowadays we would say “mind” instead of “soul.”) Happiness is to be found in activity governed by excellent reasoning. The activities in life that were taken to be characteristic of an excellent man—and it was free men that Aristotle addressed, not slaves or women—were virtues such as courage, moderation, generosity, honesty and so forth. Aristotle has a lot to say about the nature of these virtues, which need not concern us here. The point is that Pigliucci is correct in saying that we are well advised to steer ourselves toward virtuous behavior because doing so will bring us a happy—that is, a flourishing or fulfilled—life.

But Pigliucci’s other assertion, that behaving virtuously is the right thing to do, misunderstands how rightness figures into Aristotle’s thought. The term “right” is ambiguous. It can mean to be in accordance with a moral law; that’s what we moderns mean when we speak of doing the right thing. But it can also mean to be appropriate or fitting, as when we speak of wearing the right clothes for a social occasion. Aristotle does speak of rightness. Famously, he says that virtue of character entails feelings and actions that are had or done “at the right times, about the right things, towards the right people, for the right end, and in the right way….”(7) But “right” in this context means what is generally accepted and approved by Athenian gentlemen of the time, not what accords with what a moral rule dictates.

As Elizabeth Anscombe has pointed out tersely and Alasdair MacIntyre much more comprehensively, our concepts of moral obligation, duty, rightness and wrongness are holdovers from a conception of ethics that no longer holds much power; and, says Anscombe, those concepts are harmful without it.(8) That conception, which arose with Judaism and Christianity, is the idea of divine law, a legal code issued by God and to which all God’s creatures are subject. Certainly the idea is not dead. Lots of people believe in a law-giving God, and most of them insist that their idea of what God commands is the right one, an attitude that promotes much strife. But for many, perhaps most, others, the idea of God has little relevance, and Anscombe’s point is well taken. It is peculiar that Pigliucci uses “right” in this sense, because he devotes three chapters to debunking belief in the existence of God.

I have argued that confusing the concepts of goodness and rightness is harmful because it inhibits clear thinking.(9) I have also argued that it makes more sense to think in terms of goodness, but that is not my point here. My point is that it is a shame to see such an otherwise cogent thinker make such a basic mistake.


(1) Kant, “On A Supposed Right To Lie.”

(2) Meacham, “The Good and The Right.”

(3) Pigliucci, Answers For Aristotle, p. 72.

(4) Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics I.7, 1097b1, trans. Irwin.

(5) Ibid., 1097b22-29.

(6) Ibid., 1098a16.

(7) Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics II.6, 1106b18-24.

(8) Anscombe, “Modern Moral Philosophy.” MacIntyre, After Virtue.

(9) Meacham, “The Good and The Right.”


Anscombe, G.E.M. “Modern Moral Philosophy.” Philosophy No l. 33, No. 124, January 1958. Online publication as of 27 October 2015.

Aristotle. Nicomachean Ethics, trans. T. Irwin. In Readings in Ancient Greek Philosophy: From Thales to Aristotle, Fourth Edition, ed. S. Marc Cohen et. al. Indianapolis: Hackett, 2011.

Kant, Immanuel, “On A Supposed Right To Lie Because of Altruistic Motives.” Online publication as of 19 November 2017. Also as of 19 November 2017.

MacIntyre, Alasdair. After Virtue: A Study in Moral Philosophy, Third Edition. Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 2007.

Meacham, Bill. “The Good and The Right.” Online publication

Pigliucci, Massimo. Answers For Aristotle: How Science and Philosophy Can Lead Us to a More Meaningful Life. New York: Basic Books, 2012.

Aug 20 17

How To Talk About Subjectivity

by Bill Meacham

I continue to advocate for using clearer language about experience, consciousness, awareness, subjectivity and the like, in hopes of promoting clearer thinking. Back in May I presented a paper to the International Congress on Consciousness in Miami titled “How To Talk About Subjectivity (Don’t Say ‘Consciousness’).” It is scheduled to be published in the Journal of Consciousness, Vol. 19, No. 62, and you can read the entire text here:

This paper revises my earlier recommendations for using the terms “being conscious” and “being aware.” I now use them as synonyms. Many other languages have only one word for “conscious” and “aware.” Others have two, but the two do not translate directly to the two in English. So now I call being conscious wakingly and explicitly “being focally conscious” or “being focally aware.” I call being conscious of vague and indistinct or subliminal objects “being peripherally conscious” or “being peripherally aware.”

I still recommend avoiding the terms “consciousness” and “awareness,” as they are dreadfully ambiguous. If you must use them, please specify the meaning you intend. The paper lists quite a number of them.

May 11 17

Cuttlefish Dream

by Bill Meacham

CuttlefishThree and a half meters below the surface of the sea off the east coast of Australia a giant cuttlefish, about a meter in length, lurks in its den.(1) A human floats quietly nearby in his scuba gear, observing in silence and making no disturbance. The cuttlefish shows no signs of alarm at the human’s presence, and there are no others of its kind around. As usual, a restless display of colors ranges across its “face,” the area between its eyes and down its top pair of tentacles. Reds, browns, greens, blues and yellows cascade in ever-changing patterns, punctuated by veins of silver.

ChromatophoresCuttlefish, like octopuses and other cephalopods, have special pigment cells called chromatophores in their skin. A giant cuttlefish has about ten million of them; we can think of its skin as, roughly, a ten-megapixel screen. By controlling the size of the cells the animal can quite rapidly vary its color and create changing patterns. The static photo shown here does not do it justice; the colors constantly change and shift. Moving patterns and shapes — stripes, clouds and other shapes — play over its entire body. Here is a video of a smaller cuttlefish changing color.

Having no internal skeleton, cuttlefish and octopuses can change shape as well. Octopuses are well known for being able to mimic the shape of rocks and sea-plants around them, and they can squeeze through very small holes. This video shows an octopus escaping through a small hole.

Cuttlefish have a bone-like shell under their skin, so they can’t squeeze as small as an octopus can, but they can change their shape by extruding and retracting portions of skin and elongating their tentacles.

The abilities to change color and shape are thought to have evolved for camouflage, to protect the animal from predators, and for signaling, to communicate with other animals. But according to philosopher Peter Godfrey-Smith, who has studied the animals in depth, the colors go way beyond such biological functions.

Many patterns seem to be anything but camouflage, and are also produced when no obvious “receiver” of the signal is around. Some cuttlefish … go through an almost continual, kaleidoscopic process of color change that appears disconnected from anything going on outside them, and appears instead to be an inadvertent expression of the electrochemical tumult inside them. … [The changes seem to be] an inadvertent expression of the animal’s inner processes, … a kind of ongoing chromatic chatter.(2)

Down by the cuttlefish den, the human, Godfrey-Smith, continues to observe:

As I watched, I realized that these colors were changing in a concerted way …. It reminded me of music, of chords changing amid and over each other. He would shift several colors in sequence or together … and end up with a new pattern, a new combination, which might stay still for a time or immediately start shifting into another. … What was he doing? It was slowly getting darker in the water, and under his ledge it was already quite dark. …

It occurred to me that he was paying so little attention to me that all of this might have been going on going on while he was asleep, or half-asleep in a state of deep rest. Perhaps the part of his brain that controls the skin was turning over a sequence of colors of its own accord. I wondered if this was a cuttlefish dream. He made almost no movement, except small adjustments of siphon and fin that kept him hovering in the same place. …

Then things began to change. He seemed to stiffen or pull together and began going through a long series of displays. It was the strangest series I have ever seen, especially as it seemed to have no target or object. … He pulled in his arms and exposed his beak. He tucked his arms below him in a missile-like pose, then produced a yellow flare. I kept glancing out to see if he was looking at someone—another cuttlefish or some other intruder. There was never anyone there. … Then he pulled himself into the most extraordinarily contorted shape, his skin suddenly white, with arms pulled back both above and below his head. This sequence then quieted down. … And then, instantly, he seized into a wild aggressive pose, with arms straight out, sharp like thin swords, and his whole body a bright yellow-orange. It was as if the orchestra had suddenly hit a wild clashing chord. The arms ended in needles, his body became covered with jagged papillae like armor. … I wondered again if this was all directed at me, but if it was a display, it seemed to be aimed in directions all around. And I had been back from the den when this sequence started, when he exploded into yellow-orange and the needle-arm pose.

Still facing away, he began to ease back from this fortissimo. Though he moved through a few more permutations and poses, they were subsiding. And then he was still—his arms hanging down, his skin a quietly shifting mixture of the reds, rusts and greens that he had been producing when I arrived. Turning, he looked at me.(3)

The human, by now rather cold, swims away, wondering what it was all about. Was it the exterior of a dream? Was it some kind of communication with the human, as if to say “Look what I can do?” Or, as long as we are anthropomorphizing here, maybe its aggressive display expressed irritation, as if to say “Get the hell out of here! Go away and leave me alone!”

Here is a speculation: It was a bit of ecstasy in the Mind of God expressing itself through this strange animal.

The mystics say that every individual mind is known from the “inside,” as if by telepathy, by an overarching and unifying mind, the Mind of God. In Hindu yoga philosophy this mind is called Paramatman, Supreme Self. More precisely, it is the mind of God conceived pantheistically as the entirety of the universe. Sufi mystic Inayat Khan explains it this way:

The whole universe is nothing but particles of God’s life and the Absolute is one Being. God therefore is all, and all is God.(4)

The One Being is, in this view, something like a person whose body is all the physical matter of the universe and whose mind is the combined mentality of all that physical matter. This view entails panpsychism, the idea that every element of physical matter has also a mental aspect. Additionally, it entails the notion that the mentality of all the various elements combine to form one mentality, one interior, subjective reality, which we can call the Supreme Self. As Inayat Khan puts it,

The infinite God is the Self of God, and all that has been manifested with name and form is the outward aspect of God.(5)

If that is true, then the cuttlefish is one of the outward aspects of God. And if Godfrey-Smith’s conjecture is true that the animal’s colors are an expression of its inner state, then they are the expressions of the Mind of God individuated into a single animal.

The cuttlefish, a solitary creature having little interaction with others of its kind, floats alone in its world. Perhaps it senses a large, mobile creature nearby, perhaps not. If so, it detects neither food nor predator and ignores it. Lost in its thoughts, it amuses itself by putting on a light show. It hums to itself, as it were, in colors rather than sounds. Tripping out in its fantasy, it finds delight in the sheer exuberance of color and movement. God, in this instance conscious of the light show both from the point of view of the cuttlefish and of the human, finds dual delight. That delight is felt, however dimly, in the emotional background of the experience of every sentient being in the universe.

The mystic finds bliss in union with the One. The One finds delight, not only in the mystic’s union, but in the delight of every one of the creatures that make up its being. Every time we experience love, harmony and beauty we contribute to the love, harmony and beauty felt by God. In so doing, we contribute to the well-being of every sentient entity. Every time we experience anger and discord, though, we contribute to ill-being.

God is looking through your eyes, hearing through your ears, and feeling what you feel. What does God experience? How does God feel?


(1) All accounts of cuttlefish and other cephalopod behavior and physiology in this essay are taken from Godfrey-Smith, Other Minds.

(2) Ibid., pp. 126 – 128.

(3) Ibid., pp. 133 – 135.

(4) Khan, The Unity of Religious Ideals, p. 58.

(5) Ibid., p. 101.


Godfrey-Smith, Peter. Other Minds: The Octopus, the Sea, and the Deep Origins of Consciousness. New York: Farrar, Stauss and Giroux, 2016.

Khan, Inayat. The Sufi Message of Hazrat Inayat Khan Volume IX: The Unity of Religious Ideals. London: Barrie and Jenkins, 1963.

Photo of cephalopod: as of 1 May 2017.

Photo of cuttlefish: as of 2 May 2017.

Video of cuttlefish display: as of 4 May 2017.

Video of octopus escaping: as of 4 May 2017.

May 4 17


by Bill Meacham

Happy Beltane! (Or Samhain, depending on where you live.)

May 5, 2017, is a cross-quarter day, the exact midpoint between a solstice and an equinox. In the northern hemisphere, it is Beltane, half-way between Spring Equinox and Summer Solstice. In the southern hemisphere, it is Samhain (pronounced “sowan”), half-way between Autumn Equinox and Winter Solstice. (The names come from ancient Celtic seasonal festivals.)

My essay “The Wisdom of the Cross Quarters” in revised and expanded form has been reprinted here: I invite you to have a look.

Paying attention to the rhythms of nature helps us realize that what happens in the large affects each of us, and what affects each of us affects the whole of which we are a part. Now is a good time to contemplate: What qualities are being brought forth now? What changes are in the wind? What can you align yourself with to promote vibrant peace, happiness and good health for you and the humans and non-humans around you?

Mar 6 17

Soul Function

by Bill Meacham

The basic premise of my book, How To Be An Excellent Human, is that human happiness is found in functioning well:

Functioning well means doing what we are good at and doing it in a good way, a way that promotes and enhances our ability to do it. When we function well, we experience happiness [and] fulfillment.(1)

This essay is an attempt to explain what I mean by that passage and to answer some objections. The idea that functioning well is important for human well-being goes all the way back to Plato and Aristotle. My account of the matter takes inspiration from their insights but differs in some details. I suppose you could call me a neo-Aristotelian.

In Book I of The Republic, Plato gives a brief account of how human happiness has to do with performing a specific function well.(2) A much fuller account is found in Aristotle, in the Nichomachean Ethics:

[A clearer account of happiness] might perhaps be given, if we could first ascertain the function of man. For just as for a flute-player, a sculptor, or an artist, and, in general, for all things that have a function or activity, the good and the ‘well’ is thought to reside in the function, so would it seem to be for man, if he has a function.(3)

Aristotle’s aim is to find the function of the human being. We’ll take up that idea shortly, but first we need to get clear on a few concepts. The first is happiness, which the Greeks called eudaimonia, often translated as “flourishing.” The second is soul, the Greek word for which is psyché (pronounced “psoo-khay”). We get words such as “psyche,” “psychology” and the like from this Greek root. The third is function or work, the word for which in Greek is ergon. We get the word “ergonomics” from this root. And the fourth is excellence, areté in Greek.


Eudaimonia literally means being accompanied by a good (eu) spirit (daimon). If one is accompanied by a eudaimon, a sort of guardian angel, then one’s life goes well; hence, the translation “happiness.” Nowadays we find the notion of guardian angels fanciful, but there is a spirit that does accompany each one of us at all times: our own spirit, our own soul. By extension of the Greek idea we can say that eudaimonia means wellness of soul.(4)


But what is soul? The word psyche is often translated as “soul,” but it does not mean a single enduring entity, such as Descartes’ res cogitans (thinking thing). It is not the entity said to live on after death in many religious theologies. The Greek word is derived from a root meaning to breathe and, by extension, to live. We can think of it as the animating spirit or vital breath of a living being.(5) Living beings, we can say, are ensouled. Instead of saying that a person has a soul, it would be more correct to say that he or she simply has soul, or perhaps soulness.

Soulness has two aspects, objective and subjective. Greek thinkers before Aristotle recognized two characteristics that distinguish what has soul in it from what does not: movement and sensation.(6) Objectively, from the outside, we observe that living things are animated; they grow and maintain their form through metabolism. and have their source of motion in themselves. Soul in this sense is the animating principle by virtue of which a living being is alive. Aristotle says that “what has soul in it … displays life.”(7)

Subjectively, from the inside, we observe our own life, and we find that the world appears to us, and that we engage with it. The world, we surmise, does not appear at all to nonliving things, but it does appear to living beings. We recognize that some elements of what we experience—trees, chairs, people and the like—are experienced by others as well; and others—thoughts, feelings, emotions and the like—are experienced directly by each of us alone. Soulness in this sense is a coherent world appearing to a particular point of view. Soulness is coherence of interiority. If that interior coherence is rich, full and harmonious, we call it happy and say that in such a state we flourish.

And what causes our interior state to be harmonious, fulfilled and happy? Both Plato and Aristotle say that such a happy state comes from doing our function well.


The term “function” (ergon, also translated as “work”) has been the subject of much analysis. It basically means what something does or what it is there for(8), what good it does.(9) It may also mean how it works.(10) Plato says that a thing’s function is what only it does or what it does better than anything else.(11)

There are two kinds of function, and unfortunately both Plato and Aristotle confuse them. The first is biological. For example, the function of the heart is to pump blood; the function of the eye is to see; legs and feet function to enable an organism to stand and move around. In all these cases the function of the part is to contribute to the ongoing life of the living being. Aristotle assumes that if there is a structure in an animal, it is there to do something. The part contributes to the well-being of the whole.

The second kind of function is instrumental, and instrumental functions most often involve a deliberate purpose. For instance, the function of a hammer is to drive nails. It does not drive nails on its own, but rather requires a human to pick it up and use it to do so. The human drives nails for some purpose, such as to build a house. The purpose of building a house is to provide shelter. And the purpose of shelter is to contribute to the ongoing life of the human being.

In both cases we end up with a contribution to life, but in the biological case the contribution is direct and need not involve any deliberate purpose, whereas in the instrumental case the contribution is indirect and does involve deliberate purpose.

As I said, Plato and Aristotle confuse the two meanings, sometimes referring to biological function and sometimes referring to instrumental function. In The Republic Plato gives the example of a pruning knife, the function of which is to trim branches. Other kinds of knives would work, but pruning is best done with a pruning knife, so that is what the pruning knife’s function is.(12) This is clearly an example of instrumental function. Aristotle at times uses similar examples. He says that a good horse is one that is good at running, at carrying its rider and at standing steady in the face of the enemy.(13) In this context a horse is a military instrument to be used by its rider. But in other places Aristotle speaks of biological function:

As eye, hand, foot, and in general each of the [bodily] parts evidently has a function, may one lay it down that man similarly has a function …?(14)

It is in the biological context that we can understand the function of the human.


The final concept we need to understand is areté, often translated as “virtue” but more properly rendered as “excellence.” (“Virtue” is used in its somewhat archaic sense of power or potency, as in “a potion with the virtue of removing warts.”) A thing is excellent if it does what it does in a very good way, that is, if it is effective at performing its function.(15) For instance, the function of a rabbit’s legs is to enable it to run. The better they are at this function, the better for the rabbit. Excellence promotes the animal’s well-being.

The Function Argument

Aristotle’s assertion is that an excellent human, one who performs the human function well, is a happy (eudaimon) human. But what is this human function?

In Aristotle’s view the human function is what human soul does, and not just what human soul does but what it alone can do or what it can do better than anything else. Aristotle contrasts human soul with two others, that of plants and that of (non-human) animals. Plants, animals and humans are all alive. All have soul. Soulness in plants enables them to take in nutrients, grow and reproduce. Soulness in animals enables them to do those things and, in addition, to perceive their world and, in most cases, move around. The soulness of humans is that humans do all that plants and animals do and even more. Humans have, in addition, the power to think rationally.(16)

The connection between functioning well and well-being is not magical and not arbitrary. A plant that absorbs nutrients well does better than one that absorbs nutrients poorly; that is, it has a better chance of surviving, thriving and reproducing. An animal that perceives its world and gets around in it well has a better chance of surviving, thriving and reproducing than one that does these things poorly. Similarly, human beings who think well have a better chance of surviving and thriving (for humans, reproducing is optional) than those who think poorly.

We humans partake of all three kinds of soulness, all three ways of sensing and engaging with the world, but the specific excellence of human soul, Aristotle says, is found in thinking rationally:

The function of man is an activity of soul which follows or implies a rational principle. … human good turns out to be [this] activity of soul in accordance with virtue [areté, excellence].(17)

By “in accordance with virtue” he means doing so well. In other words, when you think well, then you function well and flourish.

Aristotle says a lot more than this, of course. He discusses virtues such as courage and temperance, the need for sticking to a middle ground between excess and deficiency, the obvious influence on happiness of having friends and enough material goods to sustain yourself, and so forth. But he ends up saying that the life of pure study, such as is enjoyed by philosophers, is the best.(18)

Beyond Aristotle

Coming from a philosopher, perhaps this conclusion is not surprising. But is it correct? I think not. Leaving aside the difficulty of comparing lives, Aristotle seems to confuse what is best for a particular person and what is best for human beings generally.

Aristotle does recognize that there is more than one kind of thinking. Two of them are practical reason (phronesis), which is directed at accomplishing things in the world, and theoretical reason (theoria), which is aimed at disinterested understanding. The ability to think well in practical terms is obviously useful. But not everyone is suited for a life of theoretical contemplation.

Some of us are good at that sort of philosophical thinking. Some of us are good at other things: sports, music, crossword puzzles, mathematics, caretaking, fixing things, gardening and many more. But few of us are good at all of those things. On an individual level, each of us is well advised to find out what he or she is good at personally, or idiosyncratically, and to pursue and develop those talents. By and large, we will be happier doing what we are good at than doing something else. (Perhaps not universally. I know someone who is good at plumbing, but does not much enjoy it. In his case I suspect he is even better at other things.)

Aristotle wants to know the good for humans generally, for all humans considered just as humans. His conclusions are based on observation of the similarities and differences among living things. He was a sharp observer of the natural world, but modern scientific knowledge has far surpassed his elementary classifications. The distinctions between animals, plants and humans are not nearly so clear-cut as he thought. We know that some plants can sense quite keenly what is going on around them and even seem to have a form of intelligence.(19) Many can move, in most cases slowly compared to animals, although some, such as the Venus Flytrap, quite rapidly. And we now know that some animals—birds, octopuses, and chimpanzees, for instance—are far more intelligent than we had previously thought.(20) The ability to think is not limited to humans. Perhaps humans do it better than every other kind of being, but we are certainly not the only ones who do it.

But we humans do have an ability that goes well beyond what any other animal can do: we can turn our attention to ourselves. Even more than intelligence, the capacity for self-reflection—that we are able to turn our attention to our own experience, to take ourselves as an object of thought and perception—is what makes us uniquely human. Variously called self-knowledge, self-awareness, higher-order thought, and metacognition, the ability to take ourselves as objects of concern enables us, within limits, to develop ourselves and improve our functioning. I like to call this capacity second-order thinking, the first order being thinking directed at the world. The second order is thinking directed at oneself, and it, not thinking alone, is the uniquely human function. It enables us to improve and enhance all our other functions.(21)

Here is an example. One of the objections to the function argument is that it can be oppressive. One of the obvious functions of women is to have babies. Hence, the oppressive argument goes, they should be confined to that role. The Nazis advised women to stick to Kinder, Kirche und Küche (children, church and kitchen). Patriarchal prejudice punishes women who try to succeed in business, politics or any other role traditionally assigned to men. Not only is this attitude damaging to women, preventing them from reaching their full potential, it is a mistake. The mistake is to think that human nature is exhausted by its biological functions, that humans are only their biology. And it is our ability to think about ourselves that enables us to recognize the mistake.

Every human being is indeed a biological organism. Every biological organism has three goals built in, so to speak, to its very being: to survive, to thrive and to reproduce. So you might think that those are the built-in goals of every human. But they aren’t. Some of us do not choose to reproduce; some do not choose to thrive; and a few do not even choose to survive; instead, they commit suicide.

Of those who choose not to reproduce there are those who feel no sexual attraction to the opposite sex; and there are those who do, but for various reasons choose not to have children. Of those who choose not to thrive, there are those who are addicted to harmful behavior such as smoking cigarettes, and there are those who devote their efforts to a cause at some cost to their own well-being. I do not know how many types there are of those who commit suicide. For many of them, I suppose, life has become unbearably painful; and the urge to avoid pain, which is an element of the urge to thrive, overcomes the urge to survive.

Our animal nature is strong. Even those who choose not to reproduce cannot choose to be unaffected by the drive to reproduce; we all feel sexual urges. Even those who choose not to thrive cannot choose to have no desire for what is pleasant and nurturing. And those who commit suicide have to make a lot of effort to overcome the powerful urge for self-preservation.

What is it about humans that enables us to overcome these built-in biological drives and to pursue other ends instead? It is second-order thinking, our ability to think about ourselves.

Much more could be said about this human function, including how best to deploy it, and I do say more in my book. We humans have lots of other functions, skills and talents. We have a place in the broad scheme of things. There are ways our functioning is impaired, and there are ways to correct that impairment. The more we know about all these things—that is, the more we examine our lives, as Socrates recommended—the better our chances are for a flourishing life.


(1) Meacham, p. 6

(2) Plato, The Republic, 351e – 353d.

(3) Aristotle, Nichomachean Ethics, I.7, 1097b 22-29.

(4) Wikipedia, “Eudaimonia” and “Eudaimonism.”

(5) Bible Hub, “5590. psuché.”

(6) Aristotle, On The Soul, 2, 403b 25.

(7) Aristotle, On The Soul, 2, 413a 20.

(8) Wright, “Functions,” p. 146.

(9) Foot, Natural Goodness, p. 32.

(10) Korsgaard, “Aristotle’s Function Argument,” p. 138.

(11) Plato, The Republic, 353a.

(12) Plato, The Republic, 353a.

(13) Aristotle, Nichomachean Ethics, II.6, 1106a 20

(14) Aristotle, Nichomachean Ethics, I.7, 1097b 30.

(15) Wikipedia, “Areté (moral virtue).”

(16) Aristotle, On The Soul, 2-3, 413a 20 – 415a 10.

(17) Aristotle, Nichomachean Ethics, I.7, 1097a 5 – 15.

(18) Aristotle, Nichomachean Ethics, X.7-8, 1177a 10 – 1179a 30.

(19) Wikipedia, “Plant perception (physiology).”

(20) See for example Ackerman, The Genius of Birds, Montgomery, The Soul of an Octopus, and the many works of Franz de Waal.

(21) There are actually a number of functions that humans do better than other species. Long-distance running is one. Hairless bodies that sweated heat away enabled our ancestors to run down game animals that were faster than we were but could not keep going as long without overheating. Cooking is another. Cooked food is more digestible than raw; eating it freed up calories to grow our brain. Tools and language are other ones. Other animals use tools and have rudimentary language, but ours are far more developed. See Lieberman, The Story of the Human Body, and Wrangham, Catching Fire. Second-order thinking surpasses these functions by enabling us to augment and improve them.


Ackerman, Jennifer. The Genius of Birds. New York: Penguin Press, 2016.

Aristotle. Nichomachean Ethics. Tr. W.D. Ross. Introduction to Aristotle, Ed. Richard McKeon. New York: Random House Modern Library, 1947. Available online at

Aristotle. On the Soul. Tr. J.A. Smith. Introduction to Aristotle, Ed. Richard McKeon. New York: Random House Modern Library, 1947. Available online at

Bible Hub. “5590. psuché.” Online publication as of 28 February 2017.

Foot, Phillippa. Natural Goodness. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001.

Korsgaard, Christine M. “Aristotle’s Function Argument.” Online publication as of 3 December 2008.

Lieberman, Daniel E. The Story of the Human Body. New York: Random House Vintage Books, 2013.

Meacham, Bill. How To Be An Excellent Human. Austin: Earth Harmony, 2013. Available at

Montgomery, Sy. The Soul of an Octopus. New York: Atria, 2015.

Plato. The Republic. Tr. Paul Shorey. The Collected Dialogues of Plato. Ed. Edith Hamilton and Huntington Cairns. New York: Pantheon Books, 1963.

Wikipedia. “Areté (moral virtue).” Online publication as of 1 March 2017.

Wikipedia. “Eudaimonia.” Online publication as of 16 December 2008.

Wikipedia. “Eudaimonism.” Online publication as of 16 December 2008.

Wikipedia. “Plant perception (physiology).” Online publication as of 1 March 2017.

Wrangham, Richard. Catching Fire: How Cooking Made Us Human. New York: Basic Books, 2009.

Wright, Larry. “Functions.” The Philosophical Review, Vol. 82, No. 2 (Apr., 1973), pp. 139-168. Online publication as of 22 May 2012.

Dec 10 16

Published: Don’t Say “Consciousness”

by Bill Meacham

I am happy to announce that my paper, “Don’t Say ‘Consciousness’: Toward a Uniform Vocabulary of Subjectivity,” has been published in Sociology and Anthropology, an online open-access journal. Earlier this year I gave a presentation on the same subject at the Science of Consciousness Conference in Tucson, and this is the corresponding paper.

You can view the article information here: The paper itself is freely available at

The language we use to talk about consciousness, experience, mind, subjectivity and the like is ambiguous. Different people use common terms in different ways without realizing it, and thereby foster confusion. In this paper a terminology is proposed for speaking of subjectivity. An operational definition is given of the term “subjectivity,” and from that standpoint usages of the terms “experience,” “consciousness” and “awareness” are proposed. The approach is both phenomenological in the tradition of Husserl, examining that which is given directly from a first-person point of view while holding in abeyance interpretive theories, and analytic in the British tradition, attempting to clarify terminology used to discuss what is found in such phenomenological investigation. After proposing definitions of salient terms, suggestions are given for reframing confusing language. To make the speaker’s meaning clear it is recommended to avoid the term “consciousness” altogether.

Consciousness, Subjectivity, Philosophy of Mind

Cite this paper
Bill Meacham (2016). Don’t Say “Consciousness”: Toward a Uniform Vocabulary of Subjectivity. Sociology and Anthropology, 4 , 1099 – 1107. doi: 10.13189/sa.2016.041209. Online publication

Nov 17 16

Leaning from Masters

by Bill Meacham

I recently presented a paper titled “Learning from Masters: Ethics and Cosmology in Zarathustra and Hazrat Inayat Khan” to a conference on Zoroastrianism and Sufism. Zarathustra, known to the Greeks as Zoroaster, founded the religion that bears his name. Hazrat Inayat Khan is the founder of what is now the Inayati Order of Sufism. In both we find a kind of virtue ethics, a concern for building admirable character rather than obeying moral rules or calculating the consequences of our actions. And in both we find intriguing hints of a cosmology of pantheistic panpsychism.

The paper is a bit too long for a blog essay, so I have posted it on my website at You can watch my presentation on YouTube at

Oct 22 16


by Bill Meacham

I have argued that the concept of moral duty is, in a sense, bogus. Moral duties, rules and obligations do not exist independently of us in the same way that physical and mathematical realities do. We certainly have moral intuitions, that is, feelings and judgments that some types of actions are morally forbidden, others are allowed and others are mandatory. But these intuitions are socially constructed. Moral rules are independent of individual human beings in that they come from the culture that an individual lives in or was raised in. But they are not independent of all human beings in the ways that physical things and (arguably) mathematical entities are.

Once you recognize the peculiar irreality of such intuitions—that they have no physically objective basis in fact, but do have an undeniable influence on our assessments of types of behavior—you can rationally choose which moral intuitions to give assent to and obey, and you can choose which ones to ignore or repurpose. You can choose to adopt certain courses of action as a general rule and then harness the power of moral intuition to reinforce them. You can, in effect, choose your duties.

Here is an example. I know a person who engages in environmental struggle. At the moment he is trying to put a halt to a real estate development that would destroy many beautiful trees and would cause harm to nearby neighborhoods. It has been a long slog with a few victories and many defeats. At times he becomes quite discouraged. But he continues, partly because he is stubborn and partly because he feels a sense of duty or obligation to do so. He is not a moral realist. He recognizes that morality is socially constructed and that he is free ignore it. But he assents to the duty under which he finds himself.

He does so because he sees it as his dharma, a concept from Hinduism. One of the meanings of the Sanskrit word “dharma” is duty. This concept of duty, however, is not a narrow moral one, not a list of right things to do and wrong things to avoid. Rather it has a sense of acting in accord with the fundamental order of the universe, with what holds everything together. The concept includes duties, rights and laws, but also virtuous conduct in general.(1) It assumes, of course, that the universe has a fundamental order that has some relevance to human conduct.

This person chooses to continue in the struggle because he prefers to be the kind of person who assents to such duty. He adheres to the goodness ethic, to work for the good in all things.(2) Preventing harm to his neighborhood is an obvious good, and so is saving trees and wildlife habitat, especially in the face of global warming. He chooses to undertake a task that he has the skills to do and that increases his skills with practice. Enhancing useful skills is also an obvious good. He wants to have admirable character. He wants not just to be admired, but to be admirable, that is, to have character that people have good reasons to admire. Perhaps, he hopes, others will become motivated to work for the good as well, and such motivation would increase goodness. And he does it in order to strengthen his ability to persist in the good despite painful feelings of discouragement, anger and fear.

He wants to become the kind of person who does good things as an expression of who he is rather than one who merely obeys a set of rules. The importance of good character is that not only can others rely on a person of such character but that the person can rely on himself or herself as well. In this case he does not have to question continually whether to persist in the often unpleasant struggle, but can spend his energy actually doing so. He is virtuous in an Aristotelian sense: he has skills (arete); he has enough practical wisdom to put them to good use (phronesis); and in so doing he experiences a kind of fulfillment (eudaimonia).(3)

He is a bit of an existentialist in that he chooses to create himself as the person he wishes to be. And he is a bit of a mystic in that he believes that the universe does, in fact, have a fundamental order. It has an inner unity with a drive toward increased richness of satisfaction. He finds himself an integral part of the living being that is the cosmos as a whole. If he did not follow his dharma he would not be fully himself, and both he and the universe would be poorer.

Duty in the sense of societal restrictions is to be questioned. Duty as dharma, as acting in harmony with the will of the Whole, is to be discerned and embraced.


(1) Wikipedia, “Dharma.”

(2) Meacham, How To Be An Excellent Human, pp. 14-17, and Meacham, “The Goodness Ethic.”

(3) Hursthouse, “Virtue Ethics.”


Hursthouse, Rosalind. “Virtue Ethics”. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2013 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.). Online publication as of 6 August 2016.

Meacham, Bill. How To Be An Excellent Human. Austin, Texas: Earth Harmony, 2013.

Meacham, Bill. “The Goodness Ethic.” Online publication

Wikipedia. “Dharma.” Online publication as of 20 October 2016.

Jul 15 16

Idealism, Process and Mind-At-Large

by Bill Meacham

Author and self-proclaimed metaphysical speculator(1) Bernardo Kastrup attempts to solve the mind-body problem by embracing philosophical idealism. His basic insight is sound, but the way he defends it is flawed, and some details of his theory don’t support his aim. This essay shows how, with a little tweaking, his insight can be salvaged. But be warned: it gets a little dense.

First, some background. The mind-body problem, recently renamed the “hard problem”(2), is the problem of how the ability to be conscious (mind) is related to entirely unconscious matter (body).(3) Historically there have been two broad categories of answers, dualism and monism. Dualism asserts that mind and body are two different types of substances. Mind has the ability to be conscious but lacks spatial extension, and body has spatial extension but lacks the ability to be conscious.(4) Dualism, although favored by some theologians, is unsatisfactory because it fails to explain how an immaterial substance can have any interaction with or effect on a material substance, and vice versa. Monism, on the other hand, asserts that there is basically only one type of substance. One of its variants, materialism, says that the basic substance is matter. Another, idealism, says that the basic substance is mind.

Materialism is unsatisfactory as a metaphysics because it can’t explain how unconscious matter gives rise to experience. Historically the alternative to materialism—at least for those who prefer monism over dualism—has been idealism. But idealism is equally unsatisfactory, as I shall endeavor to show. (I discuss a third alternative, dual-aspect monism, below.)

Idealism is not, in its philosophical form, the espousal of high or noble principles such as truth, justice, loyalty, compassion, and the like. Philosophical idealism would better be called “idea-ism,” as it is the doctrine that everything is basically ideas, that reality at its core is mental. It has a long and varied history in western philosophy from Plato onward to Leibniz, Berkeley, Kant, the German idealists culminating in Hegel and a number of now-forgotten British and American idealists who followed Hegel.(5) It has an even longer history in Indian philosophy, going back to the Upanishads and onward through Shankara’s Advaita Vedanta and, more recently, the teachings of gurus such as Sri Ramakrishna, Sri Aurobindo and others.(6) I bring up the Indian tradition because it seems to be the inspiration for Kastrup’s idealism.

That inspiration would be fine, except that in a recent paper Kastrup attempts to go beyond mystical intuition to present a logically rigorous defense of idealism, and in fact a particular type of idealism, absolute idealism, the claim that being is ultimately comprehensible as an all-inclusive whole.(7) Kastrup wants to demonstrate that, as he puts it, “there is only universal consciousness.”(8) His aim is to show “how the most parsimonious possible ontology can be derived, through rigorous steps of reasoning, from canonical empirical facts available to observation.”[p. 2] Unfortunately neither his facts nor his reasoning holds up to scrutiny. Here are just a few examples.

Kastrup starts by listing nine “empirical facts accessible to anyone through simple observation.”[p. 2] These are to function as premises for his argument. Most are not controversial, but some are. Let’s take his Fact 7:

Fact 7: a nervous system has the same essential nature — that is, it belongs to the same ontological class — as the rest of the physical universe. After all, nervous systems are physical systems. They are composed of the same types of basic subatomic particles that make up the universe as a whole.[p. 2]

This is an assumption, not a fact. There are actually two problems here. The first is that the composition of nervous systems is not accessible through simple observation. Scientists and medical researchers investigating nervous systems reliably observe certain images through microscopes and certain readings on rather complex instruments. It is a plausible theory, based on these observations, that nervous systems are composed of subatomic particles; and it is indeed the most plausible theory so far. But it is nevertheless a theory and certainly not accessible through simple observation. Similarly, the composition of the universe as a whole is a theory, not a fact. Even worse, the assumption that the universe, including nervous systems and the farthest stars, is the same throughout is just that, an assumption. It underlies the scientific method but is not demonstrated by that method. So Kastrup’s alleged fact, although plausible, is hardly an empirical one accessible to anyone through simple observation.

His reasoning is even more suspect. Take his Inference 1, which is based on Facts 1 and 2.

Fact 1: there is subjective experience. This is the primary and incontrovertible datum of existence.[p. 2]

Fact 2: from Fact 1, we know that there is that which experiences, since experience entails an experiencer. Notice that I am not, at least for now, passing any judgment or making any assumption about the fundamental nature or boundaries of that which experiences. … For ease of reference, I will henceforth refer to ‘That Which Experiences’ simply as ‘TWE.'[p. 2]

Inference 1: the most parsimonious ontological underpinning for Facts 1 and 2 is that experiences are patterns of excitation of TWE. This avoids the need to postulate two different ontological classes for TWE and experiences, respectively. As excitations of TWE, experiences aren’t distinct from it in exactly the same way that ripples aren’t distinct from water, or that a dance isn’t distinct from the dancer. … There is nothing to experience but TWE ‘in motion.’ Ripples, dances and experiences are merely patterns of excitation of water, dancers and TWE, respectively.[p. 3]

Inference 1 has some problems.

  • The phrase “subjective experience” in Fact 1 is redundant, as all experience is subjective, accessible directly only by the one who is experiencing. I suppose this is just a quibble, but one would expect a bit more precision from a person who claims to make a rigorous argument. More seriously, it can be argued that the primary datum of existence is not that there is experience but that there is a world. Only after some reflection do we realize that it is we who experience the world.
  • Fact 2 is not something accessible through simple observation, it is an analytical truth. This is also just a quibble, though. The interesting part of Fact 2 is that Kastrup says he makes no assumptions about the nature of that which experiences (TWE).
  • But in Inference 1 he does make an assumption about TWE. He says it is something excitable. It can be in motion. It is a sort of medium that contains or is composed of patterns of excitation.

No doubt what we experience is constantly in motion and much of it appears in patterns. But to claim that what experiences all that motion is itself in motion is not an inference; it is just an assertion. Kastrup claims that the assertion is based on ontological parsimony, but gives no evidence for that claim. In fact, what he does here is to assume what he wants to prove. His goal is ontological parsimony, so he assumes ontological parsimony to justify the inference to his goal of ontological parsimony. This is not a sound logical move.

Kastrup says that TWE is “an indisputable empirical fact … as opposed to abstractions of thought.”[p. 11] But it is not an empirical fact. Even on his own terms (“experience entails an experiencer”) it is something inferred. Given that his inference is faulty, TWE is just an assertion, and far from indisputable.

His Inference 2, which is based on Fact 4, has problems as well.

Fact 4: there is at least a partial correlation between measurable electrochemical activity in a person’s nervous system and the person’s private experiences.[p. 2]

Inference 2: from Fact 4, we know that a nervous system is sentient. … Somehow, the activity of these systems is accompanied by inner experience. One possibility is that there is something about the particular structure or function of nervous systems that constitutes sentience. However, it is impossible to conceive — even in principle — of how or why any particular structural or functional arrangement of physical elements would constitute sentience …. This is a well-known problem in neuroscience and philosophy of mind, often referred to as the ‘hard problem of consciousness.’ … It remains conceivable that physical arrangements could still modulate experience, without constituting it, if one postulates some form of dualism. But even if this hypothesis turns out to be coherent, it would still leave That Which Experiences entirely unexplained, since TWE would be that which is modulated (Inference 1). From all this we must conclude that TWE is uncaused, irreducible. It simply is. Technically, we say that TWE is an ontological primitive.[p. 3]

How does he get from the assertion that nerve activity and experience are correlated to the conclusion that TWE is uncaused and irreducible? That is quite a leap. Let’s analyze the argument in detail.

  • He asserts that “from Fact 4, we know that a nervous system is sentient.” Already there is a problem, because it is not the nervous system that is sentient but the person or organism whose nervous system it is.
  • He then adds an additional premise, one not stated in his list of facts, that it is impossible to conceive how arrangements of physical stuff could result in sentience. But he gives no evidence for the assertion except citing an authority or two. As a matter of fact, it is quite controversial, and there is a large body of literature devoted to arguments pro and con.(9)
  • He alludes to dualist explanations of the mind-body problem and claims that they might explain how physical stuff could modulate experience but also claims that TWE would be unexplained. His justification for the latter assertion is his Inference 1, which we have just found to be faulty.
  • He concludes that since TWE is unexplained both under monistic materialism and under dualism, it must be an uncaused, irreducible ontological primitive.

All three of his premises are flawed, two being entirely unjustified. Hence, the conclusion does not follow. Once again Kastrup assumes in his premises what he wants to prove. He wants to say that the only explanation for TWE is monistic idealism, but assumes without justification that no other explanations suffice. He begs the question, committing the fallacy of citing as a premise what is in dispute.

OK, that’s enough. There are many more nonsequiturs, unexamined premises and the like. Poking holes in this guy’s argument is like shooting fish in a barrel. The conclusion to be drawn, however, is not necessarily that Kastrup’s metaphysics is wrong. It may be simply that logical derivation is a poor way to ground or justify metaphysics.

Kastrup is trying to get at something important. Even if his derivation is flawed there may be something worthwhile in his conclusion, so let’s start there and see if it makes sense. Here is a summary of his thesis:

I argue for a coherent idealist ontology [which] can be summarized as follows: there is only universal consciousness. We, as well as all other living creatures, are but dissociated alters [i.e. alter egos] of universal consciousness, surrounded like islands by the ocean of its mentation. The inanimate universe we see around us is the extrinsic view of thoughts and emotions in universal consciousness. The living creatures we share the world with are the extrinsic views of other dissociated alters of universal consciousness. A physical world independent of consciousness is a mistaken intellectual abstraction.[p. 1]

The statement that there is only universal consciousness puts Kastrup firmly in the absolute idealist camp. He explains reality in terms of ideas—thoughts and emotions—in universal consciousness. By saying “there is only,” he asserts a kind of monism, saying that all that exists is something he calls “universal consciousness.” By that phrase he means TWE, that which experiences. He says “‘Consciousness’ is the ordinary English word that best fits what I mean by TWE.”[p. 11]

(As an aside, I think “consciousness” is actually a terrible word for TWE. It has too many other meanings, ranging from merely being awake to being conscious of things in an ordinary sort of way to being a conscious self. The term “consciousness” as a synonym for TWE conceived of as the ground of all being is misleading. Its meaning is certainly far from just being able to detect your surroundings well enough to navigate around. In another place Kastrup uses the term “mind-at-large,” which is much better.)

So Kastrup is a monist. Now, monism can be of two kinds, which we might call, following the analytic philosophers, Type monism and Token monism. The distinction between a type and its tokens is an ontological one between a general sort of thing and its particular concrete instances. The sentence “A rose is a rose is a rose” contains eight separate tokens, words as individual collections of letters, but only three types, words as things that convey meaning. The word “rose” is one type that appears three times in the sentence; that is, there are three tokens of it.(10) Type monism would assert that although there are lots of different things in the world, they are all made of the same type of stuff or all fit into the same ontological category. Token Monism would assert that, appearances to the contrary, there is actually only one thing.

Materialism is a Type monism. No materialist asserts that there is only one material thing; instead, all things are taken to be of the same type, namely physical matter. Some idealisms, notably that of Bishop Berkeley, are Type monisms, asserting that there are many things, each of which is of the same type, something perceived by the mind via the senses. Berkeley says that such sensible qualities cannot exist apart from being perceived.(11) Kastrup, however, is a Token monist. In another work he says “consciousness is unitary and essentially undivided. … I call this unitary consciousness ‘mind-at-large’. … the universe as a whole has subjective inner life.”(12)

Kastrup calls his work a defense of nondualism.(13) He is a modern apologist for the ancient Indian philosophy Advaita Vedanta. “Advaita” means not two, or non-dual; and “Vedanta” literally means the end of the Vedas. The Vedas are ancient religious texts of India, and their end is the Upanishads, philosophical texts based on them.(14) Advaita Vedanta is a nondualist interpretation of certain themes in the Upanishads, the main point of which is

a consideration of the relation between Brahman, the Holy Power spoken of in the Upanishads … as sustaining and/or informing the cosmos, and the self, or atman. Some Upanishadic texts … assert that in some sense Brahman and atman are one.(15)

Here are some representative passages that make that assertion:

“This whole universe is Brahman.”(16)

“This finest essence,– the whole universe has it as its Self: That is the Real: That is the Self: That you are!”(17)

“This Self is Brahman indeed.”(18)

And that’s what Kastrup is getting at when he says there is only the mind-at-large. The whole universe, Brahman, is a self, atman. The universe as a whole, having a subjective inner life, is like a living being. Everything in the universe is something contained in the mind-at-large. All things, nonliving and living, inanimate and animate, are things that the mind-at-large thinks of or feels; in other words, is conscious of.

Kastrup explains the difference between what is not living and what is living in an interesting way. Both are in the mind-at-large, but in different ways. Inanimate things are ideas in this being’s mind and living organisms such as human beings are dissociated alter egos of this being, rather like split personalities of a person suffering from dissociative identity disorder.[p. 4] Each alter ego perceives the world, but only from its own point of view rather than that of the mind-at-large. Each alter ego is like a little piece of the cosmic ego, mind-at-large, which perceives the whole universe.

What each alter ego perceives as separately existing things and as living beings are extrinsic views either of mental activities within the mind-at-large or of other alter egos (which I presume are also mental activities within the mind-at-large). By “extrinsic” Kastrup appears to mean exterior. The mind-at-large thinks of nonliving things such as rocks. The rocks are ideas in the mind-at-large; they are interior or intrinsic to that mind. What we alter egos see as rocks is the exterior, the extrinsic view, of mind-at-large’s ideas of rocks. Living beings are dissociated entities that have an interior or intrinsic view, their own view of the world, and an appearance to other alter egos, an exterior or extrinsic view. That is Kastrup’s ontology in a nutshell, explaining how everything exists in the mind-at-large.

But consider this ontology carefully. Some entities, the inanimate ones, have only an exterior. The mind-at-large thinks of them—i.e., they are objects that the mind-at-large is conscious of—but they themselves are not conscious of anything. We alter egos are conscious of them, but they are in no way conscious of us. Other entities, the living ones, have both an exterior and an interior. They are objects that the mind-at-large is conscious of, and they themselves are conscious of things. We alter egos are conscious of them, and they are or can be conscious of us. In effect Kastrup posits two categories of things, bodies with no mind and bodies with mind. Despite being dressed up in monistic terms, his ontology is dualist!

If we want a truly monist ontology, we must look elsewhere. Fortunately, there is a better one. It is both Type and Token monist, it accounts for the undeniable plurality that we find in the world, and it is true to the unitary mystical insight of the Upanishads. That ontology is based on the process metaphysics of Alfred North Whitehead.

I have written about Whitehead’s metaphysics on several occasions: in my book How To Be An Excellent Human and in some blog essays, notably “Dead or Alive?” and “In Defense of Panpsychism.” Here I give just a short summary.

Whitehead’s ontology is one of process. The fundamental units of reality, in his view, are occasions, not inert particles. Occasions are quite tiny. He wrote at a time when quantum mechanics was being developed, and no doubt the mysterious behavior of reality at the subatomic level informed his thinking. Entities submicroscopically small cannot be described as material as we generally think of it. Quantum-level entities do not interact like billiard balls; instead, they seem to have a quasi-existence in a field of mere potentiality until they are detected; then they become actual. The interaction between them and someone or something else that detects them is essential to their existence. Reality at that level is relational and dynamic.

Whitehead seeks categories of explanation that can apply both to the quantum level of reality and to the world revealed by our unaided senses. In our everyday world it is undeniable that, unless we are asleep or sedated, we are aware of our surroundings and remember our past. So Whitehead posits that subatomic actual occasions are, in a way, aware of their surroundings and of their own past. Whitehead calls them “drops of experience, complex and interdependent”(19) and “occasions of experience.”(20) They are examples of what Galen Strawson calls “micropsychism.”(21) We could call Whitehead’s metaphysics a process panpsychism.

One of the objections to panpsychism is that it seems obvious that some things, those that are not alive, have no sentience whatsoever. So how can we say that everything has a psyche? The answer is that in nonliving things the sentience is confined to the constituent actual occasions, and is not found in aggregations of them. The sentience of living things, in contrast, is a function of their complex and dynamic form, which is more than mere aggregation.

Just as subatomic particles combine to form all the objects of our world, so do actual occasions combine into nonliving and living things. In nonliving things the combinations are simple and stable; in living things they are complex and dynamic. The constituent material of nonliving things does not change over time unless impacted from without. The mentality of nonliving things remains isolated at the subatomic level. Tables, chairs and chunks of rock are certainly not sentient, and process panpsychism does not assert that they are. But living things have a unity of form over time as their constituent material changes. They are not mere aggregations. That complex unity of form over time is accompanied by a complex mentality. The primordial experiences of the actual occasions comprising living things, such as plants, animals and human beings, bind together and reinforce each other, giving birth to a higher-level coherence of experience.

Whitehead’s metaphysics can be seen as a form of dual-aspect monism, but with a twist. Dual-aspect monism, also known as neutral monism, says there is only one type of substance, which has both physical and mental properties.(22) Whitehead agrees, but says reality is better conceived as process than as substance. Every instance of reality, that is, every actual occasion, has both a physical and mental aspect, the physical being how it is detected or experienced by other occasions and the mental being how the world and its own internality appears to itself. The difference between Whitehead’s ontology and dual-aspect monism is that in his view the underlying substrate that has both physical and mental aspects or properties is process, not substance.

There is much more to Whiteheads’ process ontology, but that is enough for now. Let’s return to Kastrup. He is not a big fan of panpsychism because it is only a Type monism and he wants a Token monism. He objects to an ontology that postulates as ontological ultimates a slew of abstract subatomic particles.[p. 11], and the notion that they might in some sense be conscious does not impress him. But there is a way to extend process panpsychism that might be more congenial.

The clue is in a passage from the Bhagavad Gita, Chapter 13, verses 1 and 2. Krishna, The God, speaks to Arjuna, a human:

1 This body is called the ‘field’, and he who knows it is called the ‘knower of the field’ ….
2 Know that I am the ‘knower of the field’ in every field.(23)

This passage echoes the earlier Brihadaranyaka Upanishad:

The man who possesses this knowledge becomes the Self of all contingent beings.(24)

What these texts suggest is that TWE, to use Kastrup’s term, that which experiences, is the same in every experiencer. Not just the same type of thing, but the very same thing (although the term “thing” is misleading, as it is not a thing but that which experiences things). Brahman is the atman (self) that experiences its world in every being. This is a slightly different way to understand what Kastrup is getting at.

Kastrup is after unity. The unity of all that exists can be understood from the inside, as it were. We can say that the mind-at-large is that which is conscious and active in everything, in every event. What appears to be many from the outside, Kastrup’s extrinsic view, is in fact the manifestation of one underlying reality. The mind of each of us is the same as the mind-at-large of all of reality. As I like to put it, there is one universal interiority, which incorporates the interiority of all the separate constituents of reality into one unity of experience, one coherence of interiority.(25)

The difference between this view and Kastrup’s is subtle but important. We’ve seen that Kastrup, although claiming monism, actually ends up with a dualism: in his view some bodies have mind and some don’t. We can ameliorate Kastrup’s dualism by combining it with process panpsychism, which says that everything has mind, just as everything has body. Everything is composed of occasions of experience, each of which has the dual aspects of interiority (mind) and exteriority (body). And we combine process panpsychism with Advaita Vedanta to conclude that all these occasions of experience are united in one mentality, the mind-at-large. Instead of saying that the mind-at-large thinks of everything so that everything exists within it, we can say that mind-at-large is everything. It is broken into bits, as it were; and the bits, being both mind and body, perceive each other. Each one experiences its world; and its world is the extrinsic view of all the others, which experience their world. The mind-at-large as self (atman) perceives all there is through the senses of each of the bits. And the mind-at-large as body is entirely perceived by those bits that comprise itself.

In other words, to use Kastrup’s terminology, every actual occasion is an alter ego of mind-at-large. If we use the term “God” to mean TWE and say that the mind-at-large is the mind of God, we can say that process panpsychism is process pantheism.(26)

You’ll notice that I have not gotten to process monism and process pantheism by reasoning from premises to conclusions. Doing so is a fruitless task, as we can see from Kastrup’s attempt. Instead, I have joined some insights and ideas that together form a coherent system of metaphysics. As I have noted elsewhere, we evaluate metaphysics differently from how we evaluate empirical science and logical reasoning. By finding a way to relieve Kastrup of incipient dualism, I believe I have come up with something superior. I hope Kastrup himself would agree.


(1) Kastrup’s website,, is titled “Bernardo Kastrup’s Metaphysical Speculations.”

(2) Chalmers, “Facing Up to the Problem of Consciousness.” pp. 10-11.

(3) Wikipedia, “Mind–body problem.”

(4) Wikipedia, “Dualism (philosophy of mind).”

(5) Acton, “Idealism.”

(6) Smart, “Indian Philosophy.”

(7) Wikipedia, “Absolute idealism.”

(8) Kastrup, “On why idealism is superior to physicalism and micropsychism,” p. 1. Subsequent references to page numbers in brackets are to this paper.

(9) See, for instance, Shear, Explaining Consciousness, and Dennett, Consciousness Explained.

(10) Wetzel, “Types and Tokens.”

(11) Acton, “Idealism,” p. 112.

(12) Kastrup, “The threat of panpsychism.”

(13) Ibid.

(14) Smart, “Indian Philosophy,” p.156.

(15) Ibid., p. 159.

(16) Chandogya Upanishad III.xiv.1. Zaehner, p. 87.

(17) Chandogya Upanishad IVi.viii.7. Zaehner, p. 109.

(18) Brihadaranyaka Upanishad IV.iv.5. Zaehner, p. 71.

(19) Whitehead, Process and Reality, p. 28.

(20) Whitehead, Adventures of Ideas, p. 221.

(21) Strawson, “Realistic Monism,” p. 25.

(22) Wikipedia, “Mind–body problem,” and Wikipedia, “Double-aspect theory.”

(23) Bhagavad Gita XIII.1-2. Zaehner, p. 303.

(24) Brihadaranyaka Upanishad I.v.20. Zaehner, p. 40.

(25) Meacham, How To Be An Excellent Human, pp. 63-66.

(26) This is a variant of Whitehead’s notion of God. Whitehead has a place for God in his ontology, and his conception is similar this one, but not the same. A comparison of the two is a topic for another time however.


Acton, H.B. “Idealism.” The Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Ed. Paul Edwards. New York: Macmillan, 1967. Vol. 4, pp. 110-118.

Chalmers, David. “Facing Up to the Problem of Consciousness.” Explaining Consciousness: The ‘Hard Problem’. Ed. Jonathan Shear. Cambridge Mass. and London: The MIT Press (A Bradford Book), 1997. pp. 9-30. Online publication as of 6 July 2016.

Dennett, Daniel C. Consciousness Explained. Boston: Little, Brown and Company Back Bay Books, 1991.

Kastrup, Bernardo. “On why idealism is superior to physicalism and micropsychism.” Online publication and as of 9 June 2016.

Kastrup, Bernardo. “The threat of panpsychism: a warning.” Online publication as of 18 June 2016.

Meacham, Bill. How To Be An Excellent Human: Mysticism, Evolutionary Psychology and the Good Life. Austin, TX: Earth Harmony, 2013.

Shear, Jonathan. Explaining Consciousness: The ‘Hard Problem’. Cambridge Mass. and London: The MIT Press (A Bradford Book), 1997.

Smart, Ninian. “Indian Philosophy.” The Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Ed. Paul Edwards. New York: Macmillan, 1967. Vol. 4, pp. 155-169.

Strawson, Galen. “Realistic Monism: Why Physicalism Entails Panpsychism.” Consciousness and its Place in Nature. Ed. Anthony Freeman. Charlottesville VA: Imprint Academia, 2006. pp. 3-31.

Wetzel, Linda. “Types and Tokens.” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy Spring 2014 edition. Ed. Edward Zalta. Online publication as of 11 July 2016.

Whitehead, Alfred North. Adventures of Ideas. New York: The Free Press, 1967.

Whitehead, Alfred North. Process and Reality: An Essay in Cosmology. New York: Harper and Row Harper Torchbook, 1960.

Wikipedia. “Absolute idealism.” Online publication as of 9 July 2016.

Wikipedia. “Double-aspect theory. Online publication as of 6 July 2016.

Wikipedia. “Dualism (philosophy of mind).” Online publication as of 6 July 2016.

Wikipedia. “Mind–body problem.” Online publication as of 6 July 2016.

Zaehner, R.C., tr. Hindu Scriptures. London: J.M. Dent Everyman’s Library, 1966.