Is noetic monism tenable?
Titus Rivas (publicatiedatum: 19 November, 2017)
In this short article Titus Rivas presents basic, analytical arguments against noetic monism, and for noetic pluralism.
Is noetic monism tenable?
by Titus Rivas
In this short article I wish to present basic, analytical arguments against noetic monism, and for noetic pluralism. By noetic monism, I mean the ontological theory that there is only one experient, self or Self in reality, an experient often identified with God. I'm not talking here about similar but essentially different non-duality theories, which claim everything that exists is consciousness, in an impersonal sense, and that there is no self or experient undergoing such consciousness.
By noetic pluralism, I mean the theory that there is a plurality of irreducible experients or selfs rather than just a single one. (This article is loosely inspired by some friendly correspondence with Bernardo Kastrup, but it does not intend to specifically address his particular version of noetic monism.)
Common sense argument against noetic monism
It is clear that noetic monism clashes with a strong everyday impression we all have, namely that we do not phenomenally experience everything that others experience. If there were only one experient, that experient would have to experience literally everything experienced simultaneously. This includes my conscious impressions, feelings or thoughts, etc. but also the conscious impressions, feelings or thoughts, etc. of everybody else, regardless of their possible bodily form. Because nobody claims to literally experience everyone else's consciousness simultaneously, it is very hard to believe that there is only one experient that actually does. There are multiple streams of consciousness and they certainly don't seem to be shared by just one single Self. The theory of noetic monism is so much at odds with what we go through in our everyday lives that it can only be one of two things: complete nonsense or some higher kind of wisdom for the happy few. Which is it? Let us see.
First counter-argument against the common sense argument
A noetic monist may claim that the strong impression that I don't experience everything is just a phenomenal illusion. However, I can't have the illusion of not experiencing something, while experiencing it all the same. For instance, I may fail to notice that I register something non-consciously, subconsciously or subliminally, but I can't fail to consciously undergo what I'm undergoing consciously. So, if I don't experience something, I simply don't experience it. It can't be just an illusion, because the consciousness I'm undergoing is identical to the consciousness I'm undergoing. I can't have illusions about the experiences I'm undergoing, because either things are part of my phenomenal experience or they are not. Anything I don't experience, is not experienced by me. It may be registered, but not experienced.
This is important, because it implies that if I'm not undergoing the infinite number of conscious experiences in existence, then I can't be identical to a self that would be undergoing all of them. I can't be identical to such a God. As an experient, I must be different from God, so there really is more than one Self, and noetic monism, at least in this main form, must be wrong.
Second counter-argument against the common sense argument
The second attempt to neutralize the commonsense argument against noetic monism reads that one and the same self may undergo several streams of consciousness simultaneously. However, there is no such thing as a stream of phenomenal consciousness, or even a single subjective experience, that is not phenomenally undergone by a self or experient (remember that I won't be discussing the theory of an impersonal consciousness here). So if there is only one self and it has numerous separate streams of consciousness, that self must still undergo all those streams of consciousness simultaneously.
What seems to be overlooked quite often, is that the notion of an endless number of co-consciousnesses is an incoherent concept. Either an experient undergoes something or it does not, but it can't be undergoing a specific stream of consciousness AND not undergoing that very same stream of consciousness simultaneously. This is because such a scenario would lead to a logical contradiction. Take for instance two streams of consciousness; one involving seeing a bright blue sky and the other involving seeing a grey rainy sky. Either one experiences a bright blue sky or one experiences the grey rainy sky, but not simultaneously. This has an important implication: the self that experiences the blue sky now can't be identical to the self that experiences the grey sky now. If there is a self that experiences both, it can't be either the self that experiences the blue sky or the self that experiences the grey sky. In fact, we have no obvious reason to believe in the existence of such a self that would experience everything, but even if we had, such a (supposedly divine) self cannot possibly be identical to the selfs whose experience is limited to their streams of consciousness. This means the obvious existence of a plurality of streams of consciousness cannot be reduced to some kind of divine multiple personality, because for that, the supposed single real self would have to experience everything in all streams of consciousness simultaneously. There would never be anything like limited phenomenal experience, i.e. there would never be anything like distinct streams of consciousness.
Third counter-argument against the common sense argument
Thirdly, a noetic monist might claim that we actually do phenomenally experience any apparent multiplicity of streams of consciousness simultaneously, but that the problem lies at a cognitive rather than at an experiential level. We do experience everything there is to experience, but we are not cognitively aware of it. We don't have an experiential illusion of multiplicity (we do in fact experience everything), but a cognitive delusion.
Sophisticated as this argument may seem, it is also analytically untenable. If the phenomenal consciousness experienced is always identical to everything experienced in the apparent infinity of streams of consciousness, then there can't be anything in phenomenal consciousness that is really different for any experient in comparison to other experients. There is supposed to be only one experient, so that its consciousness must also really be one. Taking a limited cognitive perspective on one's consciousness should make no real difference for the contents of phenomenal experience.
However, my delusion clearly cannot be identical to your delusion in all respects. The delusions are of the same kind, namely they both involve remaining cognitively unaware of by far the largest part of consciousness. But what remains unaware is not identical from one apparently irreducible experient to another. I'm aware of what I falsely see as the whole of my personal experiences, and I'm unaware of everything else. Whereas you're aware of what you consider your personal experiences and remain unaware of the rest. This means that the contents of my consciousness must be different from yours, because it involves a different specific delusion, a difference in deluded perspective. What is part of your phenomenally experienced delusion - that you do not experience my stream of consciousness - cannot be part of my phenomenally experienced delusion - because I'm fully aware I'm experiencing that stream of consciousness and it is the one thing I'm not deluded about; in fact, it is even impossible for me to have this part of your delusion in common with you. If each seemingly irreducible person's specific delusion is different, then each person's phenomenal consciousness must be irreducibly colored by a cognitively different specific delusion or deluded perspective (in that each person's phenomenal consciousness is colored by a different delusion or deluded perspective concerning what is phenomenally experienced and what is not), and if that is the case, then I as an experient cannot be identical to you as an experient.
If my argumentation is valid, then noetic monism generally seems to be an untenable theory about the number of irreducible experients.
However, I believe it does not exclude a priori absolutely all conceivable types of noetic monism. There is one tenable form of noetic monism, in my view: solipsism. There may just be one stream of consciousness, namely mine, which would make me the only self or experient in the universe. Of course, this is not the kind of noetic monism most proponents have in mind or even find attractive.
If we reject solipsism, only noetic pluralism remains as a tenable option.
This short paper was directly written for txtxs.nl on November 11th 2017.
Also see this apparently related argumentation by Laird Shaw: The argument against idealism from conflicting perspectives