Friday, March 30, 2018

Absolute Idealism 2.0 and Plotinus

In various posts on this blog I have sketched the rough outlines of a contemporary version of Absolute Idealism – ‘Absolute Idealism 2.0’ – which is both ontological and mathematical in nature. It is ontological, not epistemological, in nature in that its main motivation is to explain reality rather than just our knowledge of reality. Its fundamental concept is the ontological self-grounding of self-consciousness, i.e. the idea that self-consciousness – due to its circular, self-referential nature – grounds its own existence and is in that sense causa sui. This makes possible, in my view, an Absolute-Idealist answer to the most fundamental question of ontology, namely, Leibniz’ question: “Why is there something rather than nothing?” Here Absolute Idealism can answer: there is something, rather than nothing, because self-consciousness is causa sui. In my view, this ontological prioritization of self-consciousness as the explanation of reality as a whole – including physical reality – is confirmed by recent developments in the philosophy of mind (notably the Hard Problem of Consciousness) and of physics (Russellian Monism, the role of observation in quantum mechanics, the anthropic principle, and Wheeler’s idea of the self-observing universe).

Metaphysics continuous with science
Obviously, this self-consciousness I appeal to in order to explain reality as a whole is not the individual, finite self-consciousness embodied in physical organisms. Rather, it is a universal, infinite, absolute self-consciousness that is ontologically prior to time and space. I consider this assumption of an absolute self-consciousness as a metaphysical hypothesis that is justified to the extent that it helps us to explain reality. It is, therefore, a form of metaphysics, but one that aims to be continuous with science. In my view, Absolute Idealism is justified only insofar as it accords with the scientific world view. This also explains the mathematical orientation of my approach to Absolute Idealism. Physics, after all, shows that mathematics is the deep structure of physical reality. Thus, the Absolute-Idealist explanation of reality as a whole in terms of absolute self-consciousness can only work if it also explains this ontologically fundamental role of mathematics.

Royce’s mathematical view of the Absolute
In my view, we find the required link between mathematics and absolute self-consciousness by focussing on the recursivity of the latter, i.e. on the fact that self-consciousness, in being its own object of awareness, is also aware of its self-awareness, and aware of that awareness of its self-awareness, and aware of the awareness of that awareness of its self-awareness, and so on ad infinitum. As the American Idealist Josiah Royce has pointed out, this infinite recursion of self-consciousness is isomorphic to the recursion that defines the natural number system
(i.e. the recursive successor function S(n)=n+1, which starting with n=0 generates 1, 2, 3 …). In this way, we can see the absolute self-consciousness, through its inner recursivity, as aware of all natural numbers. From here, as I have argued in different posts, it is only a small step to seeing the absolute self-consciousness as a ‘cosmic computer’, given the fact that computation is standardly understood in terms of mappings from to .

The Absolute as ‘cosmic computer’
Since physics shows the basic computability of all physical processes, we can view the physical universe as a privileged subset of all the computations going on in the absolute self-consciousness. But why is this subset privileged? Why does the absolute self-consciousness ‘think’ the computations that constitute this universe rather than any other universe? Two facts suggest an answer: (1) the anthropic principle in physics, which points out that the universe seems ‘just right’ for the evolution of life, and (2) the tautological fact that the aim of absolute self-consciousness is to attain complete knowledge of itself. Thus, it stands to reason that insofar as the absolute self-consciousness computes at all, it pays special attention to those computations that “simulate” intelligent, self-aware organisms. For by focusing its attention on those computations – e.g. the computational structure of the human brain – it sees its own essence reflected in the medium of mathematics. This gives us the following hypothesis: the universe is that proper subset of computations in which the absolute self-consciousness sees its own essence best reflected. It is, to repeat, only a hypothesis, which becomes acceptable only insofar as it enables us to explain reality, in conformity with the scientific world view.

Closeness to Neoplatonism
Looking for historical precedents of this approach to Absolute Idealism, we arrive first and foremost at Neoplatonism, especially as developed by Plotinus. Plotinus was unique among the Neoplatonists in that he accorded a fundamental role to self-consciousness in the self-causation of the Absolute, i.e. “the One” in his terminology. According to Plotinus, the One is the consciousness it has of itself and as such it exists because it is conscious of itself. Thus, Plotinus writes that the One "so to speak looks to himself, and this so-called being of his is his looking to himself, he as it were makes himself […]." (Ennead VI.8.16, 19-23) In my view, this insight into the ontologically self-grounding nature of the absolute self-consciousness is precisely what we need to answer Leibniz’ question as to why there is something rather than nothing. In this respect, then, Plotinus is a major inspiration for my approach to Absolute Idealism.

The mathematical aspect of Neoplatonism
But not only that; the insight into the link between mathematics and absolute self-consciousness can also be found already in Plotinus. This is, perhaps, not so surprising, given the well-known influence of Pythagoreanism on (Neo-)Platonic thought. The Pythagorean idea that numerical relations and geometrical forms are constitutive of reality was already dear to Plato himself, and only gained importance with the further development of Platonism. Thus the “emanation” of reality from the One was for all Neoplatonists also a mathematical process, a multi-leveled unfolding of increasing multiplicity out of a primordial unity. Plotinus was not unique in this. Neither was he unique in his technical development of mathematical ideas (in this respect, in fact, Plotinus was rather weak). He was unique, however, in the connection he forged between the self-consciousness of the One and the mathematical unfolding of emanation. Here he virtually anticipated Royce’s insight into the infinite recursivity of absolute self-consciousness as the generative source of the natural number system.

Plotinus and Royce
This becomes clear when Plotinus writes about the second hypostasis, Intellect, which is the first self-image generated by the self-consciousness of the One: “[W]hen it sees itself it does so not as without intelligence but as thinking. So that in its primary thinking it would have also the thinking that it thinks […].” (Ennead II.9.1, 49-59) Plotinus then goes on, in the same passage, to argue that we should not stop here, we should rather add “another, third, distinction in addition to the second one which said that it thinks that it thinks,” namely, “one which says that it thinks that it thinks that it thinks”. And then Plotinus asks rhetorically: “And why should one not go on introducing distinctions in this way to infinity?” Thus Plotinus clearly indicates that the recursion involved in Intellect’s self-thinking is endless and as such generates infinite multiplicity. In this way, one can say, the self-thinking of Intellect amounts to an endless self-multiplication.

In this way, Plotinus clearly anticipated Royce’s insight into the link between the natural number system and the infinite recursivity of absolute self-consciousness. In fact, I think that Plotinus took this insight a great deal further than Royce did. For Royce, this insight remained something of an afterthought – quite literally, as his ideas about the mathematical nature of absolute self-consciousness were only expressed in the “Supplementary Essay” to his The World and the Individual. Royce never fully embraced a Neopythagorean, mathematical view of the universe. Plotinus, of course, did embrace such a view, given his Neopythagorean commitments. For this reason, too, my approach to Absolute Idealism owes more to Plotinus than to Royce (the other reason being Plotinus’ insight into the self-causing nature of absolute self-consciousness, which is more or less lacking in Royce).

The self-reflection of the Absolute in Neoplatonism
There is also a third reason why I like Plotinus. Earlier I said that we can, perhaps, explain the physical universe as the computational self-image of absolute self-consciousness, i.e. as its self-reflection in the medium of mathematics. The fact of the matter is that this emphasis on creation as a self-imaging or self-reflection of the Absolute is also thoroughly Neoplatonic in nature. Emanation is for Plotinus essentially a process of imaging and re-presentation, where a higher reality creates a lower reality as its own image (thus material Nature is the image of Soul, which in turn is the image of Intellect, which finally is the image of the One). In this way, of course, Plotinus takes over, and develops further, the Platonic theory of participation, where empirical particulars are seen as the images or shadows of ideal archetypes.

Plotinus systematizes the Platonic theory by seeing the One as the ultimate archetype that creates, in successive stages, its own images (Intellect, Soul, Nature). Although Plotinus remains frustratingly implicit about this, it seems clear to me that this theme of imaging is intimately related to the self-consciousness of the One. That is to say: because the One is essentially self-consciousness, it creates images of itself, images in which it reflects itself and through which it enhances its own self-awareness. This seems to me the most logical interpretation of Plotinus’ theory of emanation, where each lower hypostasis is the image of the preceding hypostasis: this entire sequence of images is nothing but the unfolding of the primordial self-consciousness which is the self-caused essence of the One.

Neoplatonism as Absolute Idealism
One possible misunderstanding should be avoided: Plotinus' claim that each hypostasis produces an image of itself should not be understood as meaning that this image exists independent or outside of its source. For Plotinus makes it quite clear that each later hypostasis exists only inside the preceding hypostasis. Thus, Nature exists inside Soul, which in turn exists inside Intellect, which finally exists inside the One. In this way Plotinus can say that “all things belong to It [i.e. the One, PS] and are in It” (Ennead, V.4.2). In this way, Plotinus transformed Platonism in a thoroughgoing monism where only the One really exists and all other levels of reality are somehow produced inside the One as the Hen Kai Pan (“All-In-One”). Thus it becomes clear that Plotinus’ Neoplatonism is essentially a form of Absolute Idealism, since the One is for Plotinus nothing but the consciousness it has of itself. The entire sequence of self-images produced by the One should be seen as a sequence internal to the One, an internal unfolding of the One's self-contemplation.


  1. Peter, I also sent you an email, but maybe you haven't seen it. We once talked on facebook about my paper "I Exist". Maybe you would also be interested in my latest paper, "The Self-Referential Aspect of Consciousness":

  2. Insofar as "Why does something exist rather than nothing?" there is an assumption built on an abstraction. Nothing has never been experienced, and the only way consciousness has access to contents is through an experience of them. So an experience of nothing is nonsensical, and if nothingness cannot be experienced it is merely an abstraction. So it might as well be said, "Why does something exist instead of flying purple cows?"

    Once you take nothingness off the table, the question of somethingness is resolved, as there is nothing other than somethingness to be contemplated.